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  • 1978

The end of the innocence

Martin Williamson
May 18, 2013
Iqbal Qasim recoils after being struck by a Bob Willis bouncer © PA Photos
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In the modern game, player burnout and match-fixing are ever-present talking points; in the late 1970s it was the increasing use of bouncers. That came to a head in 1978 when England fast bowler Bob Willis caused outrage when he struck a Pakistani tailender with a deliberate bouncer. The incident also ended opposition to the introduction of helmets into the game.

The fear of a short-pitched delivery has always been one of the key weapons in a fast bowler's armoury, right back to the time in the 19th century when roundarm gave way to overarm bowling. But in the 1970s, with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in the vanguard, the modus operandi changed from a bouncer being an occasional surprise ball to more of a regular one aimed at softening up and intimidating batsmen.

The other change at that time was that non-batsmen lost a widely agreed immunity to being bounced. For generations it was accepted that tailenders without ability would be left alone. But as the demands of the game changed and those at the bottom of the order were expected at least to hang around, they became fair game in the eyes of quick bowlers and their captains. And at a time when helmets were still not available, the lack of ability to handle a 90mph delivery aimed at the head of a technically inept batsman was only going to end badly.

As Lillee and Thomson were followed by the awesome brigade of West Indian quicks and a few one-off genuine fast bowlers from other countries, the authorities sought to try to protect rabbits. The umpires had powers to do so written in the Laws, but as best evidenced by the Old Trafford Test of 1976, they almost constantly failed to apply them.

In 1976 it was agreed that opposing international captains would draw up informal lists of lower-order batsmen who would not be subjected to bouncers at the start of a series. In reality it made little difference, and the sight of fast bowlers peppering batsmen with seemingly endless "chin music" became the norm. Cynics noted those making the most noise in protest tended to come from countries without their own battery of quick men.

When England hosted Pakistan in the first half of the 1978 summer, there was only one out-and-out fast bowler on show - Willis. Pakistan were also weak as a result of defections to World Series Cricket, and infighting within the board. Presciently, in the Cricketer, David Frith wrote: "... the physical threat to batsmen has spread like acid". He also warned that while Lillee and Thomson were the principal villains, Willis was "about to assume a similar menace".

"Broken marriages, conflicts of loyalty, the problems of everyday life fall away as one faces up to Thomson"
Mike Brearley

England dominated the first Test from the start and took a first-innings lead of 288, and at the close on the third day - the Saturday - Pakistan were 95 for 1. The loss of a wicket in the penultimate over meant they sent in a nightwatchman - Iqbal Qasim - to join Sadiq Mohammad. Qasim, who had batted at No. 9 in the first innings, had few pretensions with the bat. He came into the match with 11 runs from four completed innings on the tour - including an 8 not out - and with 29 runs from his previous eight Test innings.

The weekend papers had added spice to the match with accusations that the Pakistan players appealed excessively, while Wasim Bari, Pakistan's captain, moaned the England batsmen were being allowed to run unchecked on the wicket.

When play resumed on the Monday, Qasim dug in while Sadiq pressed on. In front of a sparse crowd, England grew frustrated. Willis had actually bowled a bouncer at Qasim in the first over of the day, but after 40 minutes he let rip.

The first ball of Willis' sixth over of the day sailed some way over Qasim's head. Willis then switched round the wicket, a clear signal he was going to aim at the batsman's body, and two balls alter fired in another bouncer, this time more accurately. Qasim turned square on and made an attempt to duck, far too late, the ball striking him in the mouth.

Qasim staggered away, spitting blood from a deep gash and after a few minutes was led off by Pakistan's physio with a red-stained towel held to his mouth.

Qasim had two stitches inserted in the wound. Willis, it was noted by Denis Compton, who had been hospitalised by a Ray Lindwall bouncer 30 years earlier, "stood mid-pitch, apparently unperturbed by the sight of his victim writhing in the crease".

By lunchtime there was only one story as the media turned on Willis and England captain Mike Brearley, and at the interval the latter spoke to the press. "Although Qasim was a nightwatchman, he batted showing a good defence. We had tried everything and what do you expect?"

England players gather round the stricken Qasim © PA Photos
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In the post-match press conference Brearley was unapologetic, and annoyed at the line of questioning. "I'm sorry he was hit in the face but he had batted for 40 minutes. In a Test match it is hard to know where to draw the line. It was one ball and if it hadn't hit him in the face there would be no fuss." He added he had "no complaints about the way Willis has bowled".

Willis in turn said he never bowled to hit anyone and repeated his call for crash helmets to be introduced into the game so that "bouncers can be bowled at anyone".

The press were scathing in their criticism and Pakistan were livid. Mahmood Hussain, the tour manager, demanded action. "The umpires should have taken some action," he said. "We want the authorities to investigate the whole business."

Qasim was not able to bat again in the match but recovered enough to tell Chris Lander in the Daily Mirror that the umpires should have warned Willis. "I'm lucky not to have been seriously injured. I think my teeth have been loosened."

The match itself ended that afternoon as Pakistan slumped from 123 for 1 to 231 all out, losing by an innings and 57 runs. An official complaint was lodged with the Test & County Cricket Board by the Pakistan management but it produced little more than words.

The TCCB issued two statements - the second after the first was attacked for being too wishy-washy - the thrust of which was that it "bitterly regretted" the incident and encouraged the captains to exchange lists of non-recognised batsmen.

In the next few days Brearley continued to be lambasted, and on the eve of the second Test he spoke to Alan Lee in the Daily Express and called for the introduction of helmets. He revealed that he, along with some Middlesex colleagues, had experimented a day before with the Dennis Amiss-style crash helmet and it proved a success. He ended the interview insisting there would be no deliberate use of the short ball by his bowlers.

However, as the TCCB suggested, Wasim and Brearley met before the Lord's Test and agreed which batsmen would not be subjected to bouncers. The irony was that Willis was one of those named, as was Qasim.

What happened next?

  • By the end of the season helmets had started to be used in England; within a year they were commonplace. Bouncers continued to pepper batsmen but at least they had some protection
  • In the 1979 Wisden the editor bemoaned the emergence of the "ugly" helmet - cost £29 - but admitted that criticism had to be tempered with common sense and the need to protect players
  • Pakistan lost the rain-affected three-Test series 2-0
  • Qasim recovered to play at Lord's where he made a pair, dismissed in the first innings by Willis

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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