7 July 2017 – festival in northern Spain
The annual running of the bulls in the city of Pamplona pits several dozen men and women against a dozen bulls. The latter are released into the narrow streets, where they find the bull runners between them and their destination, the municipal bullring. Nobody died on the opening day of the festival this year. Five people were hospitalised, with injuries including the goring of one man in the chest and another in the scrotum. A third man suffered serious head injuries after being lifted and tossed by a bull.
Medics line the streets in a 21st century nod to human welfare as a tradition, of hundreds of years standing, continues to attract thrill-seekers and those with a need (and audience) to prove their mettle. So refined is the medical attention that, it is boasted, a victim of a goring will be stabilised within ten minutes of the incident.
7 July 2017 – festival in south-western England
2,000 people gather at the sports ground of a 176 year old college, where they double as spectators and targets for the twenty-two cricketers. The five and a half ounce missiles, cork encased in dyed white leather, have a long heritage, although not in their current hue. Much more recent is the dual role of those who stand and sit at the perimeter of the field. For decades, cricket fans have simply appreciated the action in front of them. Now they play an active part in the drama.
The day’s first casualty finds a ball narrowing in on him as he sits on a plastic picnic chair one row back from the fence. Two people ahead of him jump out of the ball’s way. He rises from his seat parrying the ball from his chest and is knocked backwards over the back of his chair. He lands heavily on his back and is carried away, strapped to a scoop stretcher.
Minutes later a ball sails over the boundary fence, skips off an awning below which diners are recovering their appetite and smashes into the tray of empties being carried by a waitress. Shards of glass tear at her hand and wrist. The ball is dried from the dregs it landed in and tossed back onto the field.
The spectators are now alert. When the next missile heads their way, it is caught competently by a local club cricketer. His view of the ball was cleared by a large man, from the local rugby club, sidestepping its path and landing heavily on the foot of a lady in sundress and sandals. She is lifted away from the incident, visible swelling suggesting a metatarsal fracture.
New Zealand’s former captain plays a short innings. He applies his famed strength and timing to just one delivery. It travels low, hard and fast through a gap in the field, bounces once inside the boundary, clips the top of the boundary board, which diverts it upwards in a direction unanticipated by those braced for its arrival. It catches its victim below the chin, breaking his jaw an instant before his teeth clamp and sever the tip of his tongue.
A high, long hit claims the afternoon’s last casualty. It soars to the back of the temporary stand, where a beery group rise to greet it, but succeed only in deflecting it onto the forehead of their neighbour who is treated on site, before exiting for concussion tests.
This Cheltenham College bloodbath is, with the exception of the concussion case, a fiction, departing from reality at some point after the ball is described crossing the boundary. It is not a fiction that has required a lot of imagination. One of these five incidents happened. The other four very nearly did.
The injured bull-runners at Pamplona do not attract much sympathy. They have willingly entered into a dangerous activity and suffered painful, but predictable consequences.
We do feel sympathetic for anyone injured watching a cricket match. “Should’ve kept their eye on the ball,” some might quibble, flinching as they remember turning to talk to a friend, or looking down at their newspaper, as the crack of a middled slog-sweep is heard.
But with sixes hit at a rate of one per 25 deliveries in professional T20 games, haven’t we reached the point where the need to evade or gain protection from balls smote over the boundary has itself become predictable? And if a risk is predictable, where does responsibility for its mitigation, or liability for its occurrence lie?
A little internet research reveals opposing views to this question in the UK and USA. In the judicature that covers the city of Cheltenham, case law points to sports clubs having responsibility for taking steps to counter reasonably foreseeable risks to the safety of the public.
Across the Atlantic, courts have sided with sports organisations, concluding that spectators understand and accept the risks of attending baseball or ice hockey matches. To place the liability with the franchise would, it is argued, increase their insurance costs, and push the price of tickets beyond the reach of those sports’ core fans.
Gloucestershire County Cricket Club may envy the legal protection enjoyed by the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they operate under the less forgiving legal code. What then, should the county club be doing to fulfil its duty of care?
I have three proposals which relate primarily to cricket played at occasional or festival venues, such as Cheltenham College. Spectators at purpose built professional grounds are less at risk. The playing areas are larger and the rows of fixed seats facing the middle help to keep spectators’ attention on the action. The ECB, with its plan to move to an eight team T20 league in 2020 may have the ultimate solution. These proposals are for interim precautions.
The pitch at Cheltenham was located off-centre. The distance to the nearer square boundary probably only just exceeded the minimum distance required by ECB playing regulations: 50 metres. That short boundary, opposite the college buildings, is where the majority of spectators were sat or stood. Sixes hit over the longer square boundary were highly unlikely to cause harm as so few people were in the line of fire. I would recommend that pitches at grounds like Cheltenham are central and certainly not closer to the square boundary where most spectators are gathered.
Protect areas where spectators mill
One of the pleasures of festival cricket is the promenading, dining, or standing and chatting in sight of the action. People thus occupied are distracted from the game and so less likely to be able to evade a ball hit towards them. Preserving the traditional pleasures of festival cricket needs to be balanced with the modern artillery of limited overs cricket. Protective netting can allow the two to coexist. Occasional grounds lack stands with roofs or double tiers, which could be used as a frame for protective netting. But a temporary net could be raised between the playing area and the concentrated zones where spectators expect to have sight of the match, if not their eye permanently on the ball.
Pad hard surfaces
The really unnerving moment at Cheltenham was when McCullum’s pull shot ricocheted from the lip of the boundary boards. Its pace and sudden change of direction would have defeated anyone but the sharpest slip-fielder. Grounds should ensure that the fittings erected between the players and the spectators do not exacerbate the threat to spectators. Padding around the top of boundary boards and other hard surfaces would absorb the ball’s momentum.
Unlike Pamplona’s running of the bulls, the running of the (white) balls is unlikely to last into the next decade at grounds such as Cheltenham College. The event’s passing will happen whether or not the safety of spectators from flying balls is given a higher priority. In the meantime, do not turn those spectators into unwitting bull-runners; or the players into bulls. John Simpson of Middlesex launched the six that hit the head of the man at the top of the temporary stand. Simpson held up play and walked towards the boundary, concerned for the injured spectator. He only allowed the game to restart when he saw one of the teams’ medics run across the outfield and climb the steps of the stand. The very next ball, mind perhaps not fully returned to the game, Simpson judged a quick single poorly, and was run out.
The DLF Maximum has gone the way of Cornhill Tests, Coopers&Lybrand ratings, Pura Cup and the Fosters Oval. A glossy superficial thing – in this case the sponsorship of sixes hit in the IPL – has evaporated, leaving the cricket element naked of commercial message for a briefest moment before a new cloak, differently coloured and with a new typeface, is worn.
When I asked readers which cricket terms they would most like to be rid of, the DLF Maximum was nominated most urgently. It seemed to encapsulate the commercialism and hyperbole that repels some cricket fans from the IPL and makes other watch with nose pinched.
I’m sure the IPL has made other arrangements and not left the hit for six nameless but for the runs it scores. I do have a suggestion, perhaps not for this year’s tournament, but maybe 2014. This idea won’t generate a lot of cash, but could add to the theatre of the Indian Premier League.
A little background: it was the early 1990s and Ged, my erstwhile college opening partner, was doing something in the Army in the south west of England. His girlfriend ran a stable and her brother captained a village cricket side in Somerset. Ged was playing a lot of cricket for his regiment, but clearly wasn’t doing a lot of whatever had officially taken him with the Army to the south-west because, when not learning to ride, he found time to accept an invitation to play for the village side.
Ged was asked to open the batting. As he was about to trot to the middle, the captain had a word with him about a club tradition. Ged was in good nick and soon played a lofted drive that enabled him to envoke that tradition. He hesitated, was this a prank to make the army officer look a fool? But, with his batting partner nodding encouragement, while the umpire raised both hands above his head, Ged took the locals at their word:
Hey! Ho! Over she goes!
And from the boundary a chorus from his teammates, now on their feet:
More commercially minded folk than I will determine if this practice has sponsorship potential, but it trumps spectators waving cardboard 9’s when the boundary is cleared.
Cricketers’ compulsion to name and rename elements of their game requires no financial imperative. In the endless discussion of the game, there are new coinings, some of which, even if just in the local economy, become currency.
The Sunday village team I played for as a teenager welcomed back Johnny late in the month of May. Johnny was the local amateur football team’s star striker. He brought to the cricket club charisma, effortless athleticism – but more importantly – girls as spectators. I don’t remember him being an especially fine cricketer. He had a swift run-up, bowled off the wrong foot, with a fast arm, but no body in his action. But he was the star-turn and we liked the burnish he brought to our otherwise scruffy mob.
And he had authority in the matter of lingo. I was never sure if he abused that authority, but like Ged, I soon forgot that he may be teasing the rest of us. So, boundaries were ‘fish’. ‘Four fish’ we’d comment casually as one of our team belted a half-tracker to the fence. ‘Four fish’. Basic alliteration, but it stuck with me and was fostered, if never fully adopted, by my college team. It even made appearances on our old boys tours. ‘Six fish’ had an assonant quality, but never became the DLF Max of the Chilterns.
In my twenties I played cricket in South-East London. At my club, poor bowling belonged and would be hit “in de weeds”. The source of this expression was Dougie, an elegant, cigar-smoking Jamaican, who always seemed to me to be charming and of good mien. My teammates warned me, though, that Dougie had a terrible temper.
Knowing the originator of this term, I imagined balls being spanked into the tropical undergrowth surrounding a baked Caribbean cricket ground. Retrieving the ball would involve pulling aside twisted stems of thorns, leaves with stings and risk disturbing creatures that would bite with venom. On the grounds we played, hitting the ball “in de weeds” would mean damp nettles and bramble.
Dougie was in his 50s and was still playing regularly. He had the knack of slowing the game to his own tempo, without looking ponderous. I batted with him only two or three times and he was very encouraging – one of the few batting partners with anything worthwhile to say between overs. During one of these partnerships, I flicked a full-toss through the in-field. I turned for two, hesitated, miscommunicated, gained my ground and left Dougie stranded.
While I batted on, Dougie circled the ground, smoking his thin cigars. I had been warned of his temper and knew I was going to be subject to it. Once dismissed, I thought it better to apologise to him straightaway. I said my piece, very briefly. Dougie responded, “‘Man, you shoulda hit it in de weeds.”