Understanding helmets and headgear used in cricket

Imagine WG Grace batting in a helmet! It really doesn’t bear thinking about, and for many of the game’s traditionalists, it was scarcely more bearable when protective headgear did come into the game, nearly a century after WG played his first Test. “It’s unsightly” they said. “You can’t recognise who’s batting. In fact, it’s the end of civilisation as we know it.”

A generation after their introduction, helmets have made cricket more civilised rather than less, and such voices are silent. It is still alarming enough watching a batsman being hit on the helmet, as often occurs, but the alarm is mild and tempered by relief that thirty years ago, the outcome could have been so much worse.

One of the catalysts for the introduction of protective headgear was an incident in New Zealand during the England tour there in 1974/75, Ewen Chatfield, a fast bowler making his Test debut in Auckland, had been batting stubbornly at number 11 when he was hit on the temple by a ball from the Lancashire fast bowler Peter Lever. His heart stopped and he swallowed his tongue. After the England physiotherapist Bernard Thomas had provided mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage, Chatfield was taken to hospital, and mercifully he regained consciousness an hour later.

The incident was by no means the first to illustrate the dangers of cricket particularly where fast bowling was concerned. With hindsight, it is astonishing that the Bodyline tour of 1932/3, in which a number of Australian batsmen were hit and injured, did not precipitate the introduction of helmets. Heaven knows what might have happened if the sustained barrage put up by the West Indies in the 1980s had been aimed at helmetless heads.

Until the late 1970s helmets were barely seen, although the first recorded example of head protection can be found a century earlier, when one was used by Nottinghamshire’s Richard Daft. In India in the 1920s, pith helmets were worn for protection from the sun. Patsy Hendren, of Middlesex and England, stitched two extra peaks onto his cap to protect his temples in 1933, while Dickie Dodds, an Essex opening batsman in the 1950s, wore part of a riding helmet under his cap, and it once proved very effective when he was facing Fred Trueman. The ball hit him on the head, and to the bowler’s amazement ricocheted for four leg byes, rather than leaving Dodds poleaxed as Trueman certainly anticipated.

Their wider arrival was initially gradual. Mike Brearley, when England captain, wore a skull cap, which protected his temples as well as his head, beneath his cap in the 1977 Ashes series, and less than a year later crash helmets were worn for the first time in Test cricket, in the series between West Indies and Australia. The broad outline of present-day helmets soon followed, and by the early 1980s they were worn almost universally against faster bowling, although there were some notable exceptions. The great Viv Richards spurned them, continuing to sport the famous maroon West Indies cap. And Ian Chappell simply couldn’t bear to wear a helmet against the Poms, although his career was nearing its end when they came in anyway.

To be fair to those aforementioned traditional voices, helmets have deprived the game of a certain aesthetic value, as is evident from video and photographs of yesteryear. But the time-honoured caps are still often seen in the field, as well as on batsmen when spinners are operating at both ends. The sunhat is also a regular feature, its rim now rather broader than when Phil Edmonds was wearing something akin to an inverted flowerpot in the early 1980s. So are sunglasses and even light enhancers.

Test caps, of course, have remained distinctive and largely unchanged over the years. The England cap is one of the easiest to spot – navy blue, with three white lions royally crowned. The lions stand out more today than ever before, but the basic design has remained largely unchanged over half a century. So too the baggy green of Australia, adorned by a kangaroo and an emu. The silver fern stands out proudly against the black of the New Zealand cap, while a yellow star shines on Pakistan’s green. The West Indies maroon is particularly attractive, with its badge depicting the sun, sea and a Caribbean island, upon which stand the wicket and a palm tree.

Old photographs and paintings of the game reveal how styles of headgear have developed over the years. In an etching that depicts a cricket match on the famous field near White Conduit House in 1787, the players are wearing wigs, which presumably provided a degree of protection as well as fashionable elegance. However, caps with a fair resemblance to those worn today are evident in an earlier painting by Francis Hayman of “Cricket in Mary-le-bone Fields” completed in 1744. More than a century later William Clark, creator of the All-England XI in 1846, appears resplendent in a top hat. Bowler hats were worn in the 1860s, and caricatures drawn in 1872 show the secretary of the Marylebone Cricket Club, RA Fitzgerald, wearing a “pillbox” MCC cap without a peak, while upon the head of WG Grace rests the authentic precursor of the modern peaked cap.

By 1900 it was becoming the norm, although standard England caps were not always worn in Tests during the following century. Douglas Jardine famously wore his Harlequins cap even when he was captaining England. Many players between his time and the late 1970s are pictured batting bare-headed, something of a rarity now. Heaven knows what Jardine and his contemporaries would have made of the headgear, indeed the entire kit that is currently worn in one-day internationals. And who would have imagined wicket-keepers wearing helmets until just a few years ago? It is commonplace for them to do so now when standing up, and it makes sense, given the potential danger of the hustle and bustle in this form of cricket.

Research into headgear safety is continuing and expensive. The international headgear company Albion spent £800,000 developing its top-of-the range helmet, which is worn by, amongst many others, Andrew Strauss, Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist. A century from now, perhaps someone will have come up with a still more lightweight and sartorially elegant version of the helmets that currently dominate the game. But it is impossible to imagine a return to the flimsy protection donned by batsmen of yesteryear. The kit in which cricket is played will doubtless evolve for as long as the game itself.