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Opinion

Cricket injury replacements are a reasonable concept, until you start thinking about it

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Expert
16th December, 2019
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Australian won the first Test against New Zealand in Perth fairly comfortably in the end, but there’s no doubt the match lost a bit of intensity once both teams were down a bowler to injury during their first innings.

The Black Caps were hit first, losing debutant paceman Lockie Ferguson to a calf strain on Day 1, having bowled just eleven overs for the day and coming into the side as a replacement for Trent Boult, who couldn’t get up in time from a side strain of his own. Ferguson didn’t bowl again in the match, and won’t play again this series.

Commentary later in the Test revealed that Ferguson had bowled more than 11 overs in a day just three times in the previous twelve months, having played only a handful of First Class games in that period.

The readiness of a primarily limited overs bowler being ready for the hard slog of Test cricket – particularly Test cricket played in Western Australia – is perhaps another discussion for another day. But there can be no question his absence was a major factor in Australia going onto make 416 in their first innings.

Then, just 3.2 overs into New Zealand’s first innings, Australian quick Josh Hazlewood pulled up midway through his run-up, his hamstring that he’d reached for the delivery before had evidently let go properly.

Hazlewood also didn’t bowl again and has already been ruled out of the Boxing Day Test, with the New Year’s Test in Sydney the following week a longshot as well.

Teams can now replace a concussed batsman within 36 hours of prognosis, as was the case with Marnus Labuschagne coming in for Steve Smith during the second Ashes Test at Lord’s this year, and this was something of a starting point for the debate.

Steve Smith consoles Marnus Labuschagne

Where do you stand on replacement players? (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

The idea of replacement players being something cricket administrators should perhaps consider began once the tourists were down a man, but quickly gained volume once Australia were also reduced to ten.

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Former England captain Michael Vaughan may not have been the first commentator to air his thoughts on the matter, but he made it very clear on Fox Sports that injury replacements are something the ICC should give some serious thought to.

“You’ve got to look at what’s the best product for Test match cricket,” Vaughan began during a stint on air.

“Have an independent doctor on site, clearly (Ferguson) has a got a rip in his calf, can’t bowl, can’t take his place in the game.

“What’s the best thing for the Test match game? It’s to make sure it’s 11 playing 11, New Zealand now play 10 versus 11,” he said during the New Zealand bowling innings, and before Hazlewood pulled up sore.

“(If) a batsman breaks his hand first ball of the Test match, of course I believe the team should have a replacement. If an independent doctor assesses the player and finds the injury is a real injury.

“We’ve got to always think of how we can improve the game and I think that is one area that can be improved.”

I heard Vaughan say this live, and I have to admit at the time that I thought he made a solid point. Injuries don’t happen in every Test match, but even if they happen in every tenth or twentieth or fiftieth match, there’s no doubt the contest would be improved if the affected team was allowed a replacement.

Vaughan even gave it enough thought to take it out of the teams’ hands as to whether a player could legitimately be replaced.

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“If there’s an independent doctor on site that assesses the player, and I’m just using Trent Boult’s situation as an example, but if the doctor says okay you haven’t done your left calf… it’s that doctor that is the key,” he elaborated.

“He assesses the problem; he decides whether that replacement is allowed.

“If there’s a grey area and he’s not sure then you’re not allowed a replacement. But if it’s clear like Lockie Ferguson on debut, he’s ripped his calf, surely for the sake of Test cricket, it would be better to have 11 versus 11.”

And on the surface, the idea certainly has merit.

But the issue is that you don’t have to get very past the surface to start finding very grey areas.

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Mitchell Starc had to shoulder a lot of load when Hazlewood went down, but his scepticism was clear.

Mitchell Starc of Australia celebrates dismissing Kane Williamson

Mitchell Starc. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“It might (be considered) in the future but I think it’s another area, like with the concussion stuff, I worry about teams taking advantage of that. There is probably too much grey area with that one as well,” he said during the Test.

Certainly, a major grey area is around like-for-like replacements. If a spinner was genuinely ruled out on a benign wicket, the replacement couldn’t then be a fresh fast bowler. Likewise, you couldn’t have a quick ruled out on a dustbowl and replace them with another spinner.

But it could get worse than that. Much more tactical than that.

Why wouldn’t teams look to replace an injured bowler in the second bowling innings with an extra batsman for the run chase? Why wouldn’t teams bring in an extra bowler for a batsman before beginning the final innings in which they need ten wickets?

How many teams would put up with a batsman behind the stumps for the last stage of a bowling innings and bring a top order bat in for a wicketkeeper with a busted thumb?

We can’t assume it wouldn’t happen. There’s a reason batsmen are no longer allowed runners in games.

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The idea of replacing injured players comes from a genuine place with good intentions.

But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be exploited by teams desperate enough to try anything. And that thought alone means anything around injury replacements needs to be carefully thought out.