It is currently the Ashes. This is good, because it gives me something to distract myself from doing any actual work. The main talking point so far has been: how can England get rid of Steve Smith? The rest of Australia’s batting line-up is a little suspect without him; with him in, he becomes the proverbial immovable object and England haven’t so far found an irresistible force to displace him. The only thing that’s worked is getting Jofra Archer to bowl so fast that Smith gets hit on various parts of his body and ends up having to retire hurt. For those who missed it, Smith’s stay in the first innings of the 2nd Test was ended by a nasty blow on the forearm and then one on the side of the neck from a couple of Archer’s fast balls. He did return to the crease after retiring hurt and getting checked over, but was visibly shaken and perpetrated one of the worst leaves ever in professional cricket to quickly get out lbw to a straight one from Woakes.
This has rather re-ignited the debate about whether the laws of cricket should be changed to make bowling at batters’ heads illegal, particularly as Smith was wearing an old-style helmet without a stem guard (neck protection) and was hit in more-or-less the same place as Phil Hughes was, who later died. Smith seems fine, fortunately, but there’s clearly always going to be the potential for anyone facing a fast bowler to get hit in exactly the wrong place and die. So, should the laws be changed?
No, I would argue. Though not because I’m some sort of small-minded conservative who opines that ‘it’s all part of the game’ in the same way that some people objected to the abolition of the death penalty or corporal punishment in school as a matter of principle, just because it was a change. First, though, to play devil’s advocate, the argument for changing things: proponents of changing the laws point at, say, American football and rugby, where, after some high-profile injuries and deaths, high tackles and deliberate targeting of the head are now right out. Similarly, real football has started taking concussion injuries from tackling or accidental collisions much more seriously. And, to be fair to cricket, it has followed suit, with the recent advent of rules surrounding the treatment of concussion and substitutes for concussed players, which we saw put into practice for the first time in a Test with Smith. But, given the adoption of new-style helmets with stem guards isn’t mandatory for players – they can feel more encumbering, rather than it’s players being stupid – accidental deaths could still occur. And, no matter how much we all like cricket, surely we should ensure that the rules, as far as reasonably possible, remove the possibility of such accidental deaths?
Generally speaking, I agree with this position and wouldn’t have any problem with making more protective helmets a requirement for any batter. But banning bowlers from targeting the head – moving towards a rugby model – would be idiotic. Because it wouldn’t stop balls hitting batters in the head AND would make the game much less interesting. In rugby, it is relatively easy to not tackle people around the neck. As the tackler, you are more-or-less entirely in control of where you make contact with the tacklee. Sure, they might dodge or jink, but, if you’re aiming for their torso/waist/legs, it’s very unlikely you’re going to end up smacking them in the face. It’s also very unlikely that going for the head is ever going to be your only option to make a tackle, so the ban on high tackles isn’t going to mess up the flow of the game particularly.
However, as a fast bowler in cricket, you can do everything humanly possible to avoid knocking batters out, but you could still end up doing it. This is because the trajectory of a ball once it’s left the hand of the bowler is only partially determined by the bowler. You can aim at a particular spot on the pitch, but there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it exactly. How the ball bounces off whichever bit of the pitch it hits is, indeed, partly determined by the bowler’s intentions – how hard it was thrown, the angle at which it was thrown – but is also in large part a result of the state of the ball and the state of the pitch. In other words, a bowler can never be entirely sure how a ball will bounce after it’s hit the pitch. So, you could aim to bowl something that’s not going to bounce above chest height, but it could hit a patch of rough, spit up and take the batter in the face regardless. There’s also a further factor that complicates matters: the batter themself. They don’t stay still. Especially someone as fidgety as Smith. Wherever the batter is when the bowler releases the ball, they’ll quite probably be in a different position by the time the ball reaches them.
So, all banning bowlers aiming at the head would do would make them bowl exaggeratedly slowly and carefully to avoid any unintended chance of a ball doing something illegal, which would make cricket really dull. I’m not saying bowlers should be given carte blanche by any means – they’re not anyway – but bowling is too imprecise an art to make any rules governing the trajectory of the ball after it’s left the bowler’s hand in any way practical. It would be a bit like blaming a footballer for hitting someone in the face with the ball after their shot takes a deflection off another player or a ricochet off the woodwork. So yes, encourage batters to wear better helmets and discourage fast bowlers deliberately trying to smack people on the head, but don’t ban it, because it wouldn’t solve anything. The nature of cricket means there’s always a slim chance someone might get seriously injured, and the only way to deal with that would be to ban cricket. And that just wouldn’t be cricket.
 Note for Americans and people not interested in sport: the Ashes is one of the oldest sporting competitions in the world and is a bilateral cricket series between England and Australia, contested every 18 months or so. It is generally quite hotly contested and usually generates some sort of controversy. This post is therefore going to be about cricket. If you have no interest in cricket, you may want to stop reading now, because I can’t be asked to explain everything without using cricket jargon. Or you could skip the first paragraph and get to the bit where I start making a more general point.
 Unless you bowl a really horrendous full toss, in which case you probably shouldn’t be allowed to bowl.