Words vs actions – why cricket in Australia still has a long way to go.

Messy Jez Tells us the view from a baking Australia and the effects of increasing temperatures on our beloved summer sport

It’s only getting hotter the world over, what now for cricket?

Welcome to Summer in Perth

It’s Summer here in Perth. It gets hot – it always has, and there is no doubt that it’s getting hotter, and will continue to do so.

Tomorrow, 12 December 2019, is a historic day for cricket in Western Australia. It will be the start of Perth’s first ever Day/Night Test Match, against New Zealand. It is to be played at the new Burswood Stadium, which has replaced the much-loved, but woefully inadequate, WACA ground as the home of major cricket matches in Perth.

But, apart from questions about how the drop-in pitch will play, there is another huge concern – the weather. Perth has never had more than two days of 40C or above in December, but that record is about to be challenged. The maximum temperatures forecast for the first four days at Burswood ar 41°C, 42°C, 41°C and 41°C. Even by Perth standards, this is a serious heatwave, particularly so early in the Summer. In the middle of what is, effectively, a massive concrete heat sink, temperatures are expected to be well in excess of 50°C, and significantly more for a fully protected batsman under the helmet.

Who Else Is Playing?

At 8.00 am on Saturday morning, my 9 and 11 year old grandsons, along with thousands of other junior cricketers, are due to start 3-4 hours of cricket, as they do throughout the season. It’s forecast to be 31° when they start, and to reach 40° by 11.00 am. Tonight, their club committee will discuss whether to call off the games in the interests of the players’ health and safety. I’m very much hoping that they will take pity and let everyone stay out of the burning sun. But when they make that decision, one of the things that has an impact is the extent of the leadership, or lack of it, shown by Cricket Australia, and State cricket bodies.

In responding to questions about the extreme heat they will face in the Test match, both Australian and New Zealand players and officials have, understandably, spoken about the conditions being something you have to deal with; that “it’s a battle of endurance and fitness as well as skill”, to quote Australian coach Justin Langer. It’s true, too, that these are highly conditioned athletes, with superb levels of fitness, and that, other than when the pitch is dangerous, it has rarely been up to the players to dictate what is a safe playing environment.

We’re on Fire, too!

Last week, as a result of bushfires which have already destroyed an area in New South Wales which is larger than Wales itself, Sydney was shrouded in dense smoke. Hundreds of buildings were evacuated as fire alarms were tripped. Ferries on the Harbour stopped due to low visibility. Air quality was up to 12 times the hazardous level. Cricket NSW had advised its clubs on the previous weekend to consider canceling play because of the smoke hazard. But, with NSW on the brink of victory in their Sheffield Shield game, play at the Sydney Cricket Ground carried on despite the appalling conditions.

Big Steps on Mental Health

There is no doubt that the last few years have seen a very refreshing shift on the part of most cricket administrators towards mental health issues for professional players. While some countries have made greater progress than others, it is clear that, particularly in Australia, there has been a massive move past the “Toughen up, princess” approach which was prevalent for so long. It is hard to overstate the significance of this example to the rest of the community of how the long-hidden and suppressed mental health issues need to have light shone upon them, and to have proper support mechanisms put in place. This in a country where suicide is the biggest single cause of death for males aged from 18-45. I can only applaud the joint initiatives taken by Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers Association to so dramatically turn this around.

What is the Message on Physical Health, Though?

But then we come to the question of physical conditions for players. To all those junior cricketers out there every weekend, the likes of Warner, Williamson, Smith, Cummins, Starc and Lyon are heroes. They aren’t just highly skilled, but they are tough, resilient, and never back down! In many ways, they are great exemplars, but, for junior players in particular, there is also the message: “Be tough, never show your weakness”.

What doesn’t get articulated, though, is how important the issue of self-care is. That, when your body is telling you to stop, it should be listened to, not ignored. That the concept of “beating the pain barrier” is one which might be valid for some professional, fit, informed athletes, but which is not a universal requirement. Even then, there is cause for concern that players can be blind to their own best interests when they perceive that the interests of their team, nay, even their nation, are at stake. The sense of a war, rather than a game, can lead them to do what is often regarded as heroic, but which, in hindsight, is unwise, and sometimes dangerous. The memory of Dean Jones’ epic 210 in the tied Test in Chennai in 1986 springs to mind as an extreme example.

It’s Getting Hotter!

The example set by Cricket Australia around players’ physical health and safety is hugely important. The impact of their stand on mental health is indicative of how a similar show of concern around playing in heat, and smoke, can directly affect the actions of so many others. And yet, it seems the “toughen up” message continues to be writ large.

This is an issue which will only get worse. We face ever hotter Summers, and parents who will, rightly, discourage children from playing if they see it as hazardous. This country has a legacy of the highest rate of melanoma in the world, largely as a result of inaction despite all the warning signs being apparent. The same applies right now, and we need Cricket Australia to step away from financial considerations and give the top priority to protecting the long term health of players at all levels, by quickly developing very clear guidelines on safe heat levels for playing cricket.

Disclaimer: I claim absolutely no qualifications in the medical disciplines, but I have elite expertise, born of living this long, in the bleeding obvious.