On the morning of 4 November, the second day of the first Test match between Australia and South Africa, Dale Steyn left the Waca in Perth clutching his right shoulder and grimacing in pain. Later that day he was diagnosed with a shoulder fracture. He took no further part in the Test match.
The severity of Steyn’s injury dawned on us this week when it was announced he would be out of action for six months. The 33-year-old speedster will miss the upcoming Sri Lankan visit to South Africa, the tour to New Zealand in February and March 2017 and the lucrative Indian Premier League in April and May 2017. In anyone’s book, being out of action for six months means you must have a very serious injury.
Yet, astonishingly, South Africa was not allowed to substitute Steyn in the Pert Test match. Does this make the rules of cricket an anachronism, or should it be preserved as something that makes cricket unique?
Unique it certainly is. Today, no other major international team sport does not allow substitutes, be they tactical of for injuries. Replacements for injured players were allowed in the very first FIFA World Cup in 1930. In 1965 FIFA sanctioned the rule in all football and two years later assented to tactical switches. For rugby union the delay was even longer. Injury replacements were officially permitted in 1968 (remember the days of the replacement handing a note from the team doctor to the referee..?) and from 1996 tactical replacements were allowed.
In short, the laws of cricket allow a substitute to act for an injured player on the field, but the substitute may not bowl, bat or act as wicket-keeper. Tactical substitutions are not allowed in cricket at all.
The pros and cons of tactical substitutions in cricket is an entirely different matter. The thrust of this article is whether or not substitutions for injuries should be allowed.
A recent study in Australia found that in 34% of first-class games, a team will have at least one player suffer an injury that either prevents continued participation in the game or causes him to miss the following game. With one third of teams affected, it cannot therefore be argued that injuries in professional cricket are rare events. Cricket has injury prevalence rates similar to football and rugby union, and therefore has the same need to consider substitute players for injuries.
The risk of injury is the biggest for fast bowlers. In a first-class match, a fast bowler would typically bowl 30 – 40 overs. In the games shortest version, T20, four overs is the maximum for any bowler. Because of the lucrative contracts being offered in T20 cricket, it is an increasing option for players to retire from first-class cricket to become T20 specialists. If the rules of first-class cricket remain as arduous as they currently are, T20 cricket will be seen by more players as “money for jam” and the talent pool for Test cricket will diminish, along with the popularity of the longest version of the game. Updated rules which will allow first-class cricket workloads to be more compatible with T20 workloads would encourage more players to continue in all forms of the game without the overuse injuries of first-class cricket preventing players from enjoying the lucrative proceeds of T20 tournaments.
The naysayers for the most part accept in principle that for the Steyn type of injury a substitution should be allowed. However, it is that grey area between a Steyn-like injury and the not-so-serious injury that concerns them. This argument is without substance. Surely in this day and age cricket can find a way to establish an objective medical opinion as to whether a player’s injury is real or fake.
The rule in cricket against substituting a genuinely injured player is outdated and should be changed as soon as possible to preserve the integrity of the game in all its versions.