How safe are cricket helmets?

| Manufacturing

Safe design of Masuri cricket helmet

Andy Pye reviews the evolution of the cricket helmet and the focus of attention being currently placed on sporting headwear safety standards.

The level of protection provided by cricket helmets has been controversial and topical for several years, yet it has taken the recent tragic death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes to gain more focus on the safety standards applicable to cricket helmets.

There really are only two ways to prevent injuries in cricket– technical enhancement of the cricket equipment, or changes in the laws. And with the laws already extremely limited, the responsibility will inevitably lie on the equipment.

The domination of international cricket by express fast bowlers in the late 1970s prompted the introduction of the batting helmet. Early models resembled full-faced motorcycle helmets which were protective, yet hot, heavy and uncomfortable during long innings.

Over the following two decades, designs evolved that mostly consisted of a fibreglass shell that resembled a cricket cap incorporating a detachable wire faceguard or grill. Although the material in some helmets changed to include plastics or carbon fibre shells with titanium grills, the basic design has almost universally persisted.

Edouard Ferdinands, a biomechanist at Sydney University, suggested using skullcaps inside the helmets to cushion blows like the one Hughes suffered.

Over the years there been talk about adopting crash helmets used by drivers and bikers in motor sports. However, there are practical issues to consider when using them in cricket. “Whilst it is understood that crash helmets offer probably the best head protection available, such helmets have not been viewed as a realistic reference point because they are heavy and designed for a very different purpose,” Ferdinands says.

Masuri is the most widely used helmet in professional cricket. Masuri helmets boast innovative designs which have been subject to stringent testing. In the new Masuri Vision Series, there are three layers of protection: first, the polycarbonate inner shell then an expanded polystyrene crush zone (think rigid and tough, not those paper cups at railway stations) then a very thin polypropylene outer shell. There is also something called the Halo Reinforcement System (HRS), a reinforced plastic rim.

Another clever Masuri innovation is the patented Eye-Line Grille system. It’s an additional top bar on the grille. The idea being the greater surface area will force the ball upwards towards the solid peak rather than into the facial features.

The first – and until recently only – British Standard for batting helmets was published in 1998, with the central test measuring deceleration when the helmet shell was dropped onto a cricket ball sized hemispherical anvil.

The robustness of helmet design began to be questioned when the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) 2008 County Cricket Injury Surveillance Report tabled six serious facial and eye injuries, where the ball appeared to penetrate the gap between the face guard and the helmet peak, even if the gap was considerably narrower than ball width. Gloucestershire County Cricket Club’s Craig Spearman, who fractured his eye socket and required extensive reparative surgery, was a high-profile example of this.

Dr Nick Peirce, ECB Chief Medical Officer, then conducted an informal audit, asking cricket medical teams from around the globe to share any similar examples. Unsurprisingly, a significant number of facial and head injuries to professional batsmen were reported, despite the wearing of helmets. In response, in 2010 the International Cricket Council (ICC) Medical Committee initiated a batting helmet safety project that aimed to:

* Investigate potential issues with batting helmet safety features
* Determine what batting helmet safety standards applied in different territories internationally
* Provide recommendations for the development and improvement of helmet safety standards

To address the first aim, an injury mechanism analysis of video footage of 35 batting head injuries was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine* in 2012 and raised a number of concerns, including findings that eye and nose injuries, fractures and lacerations were often caused by the ball penetrating the gap between the grill and the helmet peak.

Sometimes this was because the gap was adjusted to greater than ball width; however, in a number of instances it was confirmed that the ball was able to travel through the gap even if it was much narrower than the ball.

Another common mechanism for facial and mouth injury was the grill deforming and being pushed onto the face by the ball. Concussion injuries also occurred following impacts to that side and back of the helmet shell.

Safety certification

A review of popular helmet models indicated that most were certified against either the 1998 British Standard (BS 7928), or the 1997 Australian/New Zealand Standard, with a number of makers from other countries failing to have any safety certification.

Further, it was noted that neither the British nor Australian/NZ Standards included projectile testing, nor did they include any provision for helmet/faceguard failure due to contact with the face. Impact energy levels and impact areas for the associated testing protocols did not seem to match impact forces and locations that were likely to occur during cricket batting situations.

In contrast, the North American National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) testing of baseball catchers’ helmets appeared to utilise similar types of ball, ball speed and replicated the head area requiring protection in cricket. The NOCSAE specification is updated annually and involves both drop and projectile testing (involving a baseball being fired at the helmet/face guard).

Accordingly, the specification for head protectors in cricket was updated and published in December 2013. As of 2014 the design and manufacture of cricket head protectors was governed by British Standard BS7928:2013, which has been adopted by the ICC as the international standard. A guidance note regarding the new standard can be found on the ECB website.

The major changes to the standard are that it includes a projectile test, whereby appropriately-sized cricket balls (junior and men’s depending on the model of helmet) are fired at realistic speeds to test for contact with the ball or the grill, against a defined area of the face. “The facemask that the baseball catcher wears, crouching behind the batter, is tested under conditions where a projectile has been fired at it from a close range,” says Angus Porter, the Chief Executive of the Professional Cricketers’ Association. “The test was if the grille or the ball came in contact with the face or head then that mask would fail. That is the principle we have adopted for standards under the new tests for cricket helmets.”

Porter confirmed the new standards have made it difficult for the ball to funnel through or get stuck in the gap separating the peak and the grille. “One of the things required is the helmet is tested with the grille at the widest gap available.”

The drop test of the helmet shell was retained, but the impact locations were refined to target vulnerable areas, including the section covering the back of the head near the rim of the helmet.

Following publication, two testing houses have offered assessment and certification against BS 7928:2013, with several manufacturers expecting to have compliant helmets on the market from January 2015. Whilst injury risk can never be completely negated, the chance of significant injury should be greatly reduced by the wearing of these new standard helmets. Whilst it is heartening to know that significant progress has been made, recent old standard helmet incidents remind us that the challenge now is to:

* Encourage governing bodies to champion the standard
* Persuade makers to produce helmets that exceed the specification
* Educate players to choose safe and effective helmets.

From the coming 2016 season, all male and female cricketers playing in professional cricket matches will be required to use helmets which meet the latest British Safety Standard.

The key changes will apply to batsmen facing all types of bowling, wicket-keepers standing up to the wicket and fielders closer than eight yards from the batsman’s middle stump, except behind the wicket on the off side.

The ECB also recommends that all recreational cricketers wear helmets which meet the latest British Safety Standard from next season. The use of protective headgear is already mandatory for all under 18s within the recreational game.

Any head protector that is altered except as permitted by the manufacturer shall be deemed to be non-compliant equipment and shall not be allowed to be used where the mandatory rules apply. (This shall include helmets from which a part has been cut or removed, facemasks from which the chin-cup has been removed or any other such alterations from the original manufacturing specifications).

Masuri found themselves at the centre of a media storm, as they were the brand of helmet Phillip Hughes was wearing when he was hit, albeit a Masuri Original Test older model. A product review of the new Masuri Vision Series cricket helmet was about to be published when the news came through about Australian Test batsman Phillip Hughes being hit in the head. That changed everything. The 25-year-old Hughes was hit at the top of his neck by a bouncer from Sean Abbott in an Australian state match – and it sparked an understandable and vital debate about head injuries and protective equipment. Hughes’ brain injury was caused by being hit at the base of the skull where it is very difficult to adequately protect without restricting a batsman’s head movement.

This latest tragedy served to galvanise those select few companies who make cricket helmets around the world to take a fresh look at future innovations to make them even safer. A study by Craig Ranson, Senior Lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University found the back of the head to be a “vulnerable” area with risk of concussion being a major concern. “Prevention might be achieved via improved shock attenuation and by extending the shell of the helmet to cover the entire occipital region,” the paper said. “This is because in some instances the ball partially struck the helmet and partially directly struck the underlying occiput, an area of the head that does not seem to be completely assessed within the current cricket helmet standard impact attenuation test specifications.

According to Porter, modifications to the back of the helmet remain a work-in-progress. “We have specified that the helmets need to be tested both at the sides and near the base of the shell instead of just testing the crown the shell.” What has not been done, he admits, is to specify how much of the head needs to be covered or how low down the helmet needs to come.

Masuri has since announced their concept in development of a protection system for the back of the head that it believes will protect that vulnerable area but still allow movement. The Stemguard combines an impact-modified thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) honeycomb with military grade crush foam in order to maximise impact absorption, giving players much more confidence when batting.

The StemGuard attaches to the existing Masuri Vision Series helmets with moulded clips. The attachment has been designed to give batsman free movement, while offering protection to the vulnerable region at the back of the head and neck.

Masuri extensively studied all information available in order to develop StemGuard and the company worked with a number of cricket’s national governing bodies during the development to take StemGuard from concept to a production capable prototype within three months.

Masuri Managing Director Sam Miller said: “The primary challenge was to retain freedom of movement for the players whilst increasing protection in the region at the back of the head and top of the neck. Based on our research to date we believe the StemGuard provides players with a full range of movement and as such are confident that we have created a viable product that will provide players at all levels the ability to choose extra protection.”

Steve Smith, Glenn Maxwell and George Bailey have all worn the new Masuri StemGuard helmet safety attachment. “Our objective for the last three months has been to make available, as quickly as possible, a guard that offers players extra protection for the vulnerable area at the back of the head and neck,” says Miller.

Should Cricketers Wear Helmets to Bat?

Respected coach and editor of the online coaching publication PitchVision Academy David Hinchcliffe recently debated this issue.

Ironically, just three weeks before Hughes’ death, the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare released findings of a year-long study on the most dangerous sports in the country, with cricket ranking a low 13th on the list. In fact, there are only eight known cases of death in cricket directly resulting from injuries sustained on the field.

Furthermore, cricket pitches around the world are covered now, meaning there are regulations imposed by governing bodies which limit the number of bouncers that can be bowled in an over.

The worrying fact is that six of the eight known deaths have occurred since 1993, by which time most batsmen and close-in fielders in the sport had already started wearing helmets and other protective gear.

What is causing the rise in batsmen injuries? Some believe that it is down to players being “lulled into a false sense of security” due to safety equipment. Pakistan’s former opening batsman Rameez Raja, said; “There is no doubt that the technique in our days, and the time when the wickets were not covered, was far superior. We would dare not take our eyes off the ball until it was past our heads.”

And England’s late captain Brian Close was a man who was disgusted by the idea of head protection. The Close Theory, as it might be called, is simple; if you are in peril when batting you watch the ball harder. You are aware of the damage it can cause and you are therefore much less likely to get hit by the ball. So, young players brought up under the protection of a lid are worse cricketers as a result.

It would be interesting to see some cold hard statistics on the number of head injuries to players before and after the widespread adoption of helmets. Sadly, these numbers seem well hidden, with research focusing on testing standards of lids. In short, there is no proof of a large reduction in head injuries between, say, 1985 and 2005 (an approximate span of helmet adoption) with a real indicator the year helmets are made compulsory for Under 18 players.

But current logic takes the view that players should be protected from a ball hurtling to their head as it will reduce the chance of serious injury. Of course, nothing is 100% safe, but a helmet is much better than nothing.

List of known head protectors that have met BS7928:13 as of 6 November 2015

USAMIL-STD-461FThe standard covers emission and susceptibility testing for equipment and subsystems used by the US Department of Defense
UKDEFSTAN 59-411Five-part standard covering military EMC environments and test methods for subsystems and for large platforms and assemblies
InternationalDO 160A wide-ranging standard covering the testing of all variants of airborne equipment against environmental conditions including EMC emission and susceptibility

Latest posts by Andy Pye (see all)

About Andy Pye

Andy Pye is a graduate of Cambridge University and has had a high profile career in the technical press as well as being a pioneer in web publishing.

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