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The grey area surrounding the concussion sub rules needs attention

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Over the last few years, head injuries and concussion related incidents have been spoken about a lot in cricket, and rightly so.  The unfortunate incident that happened to Phillip Hughes in 2014 perhaps stemmed the global cricket community to focus more on the safety of the players.

Even before Hughes passed away after receiving a blow to the neck in a Sheffield Shield game, there were several head-related injuries in cricket as well as other sports but there wasn’t enough focus on such issues, unfortunately. After the impact of such injuries was evident, the game became more attentive and started to look at preventive measures which could help a player from getting into serious trouble.

This is how stringent concussion testing and protocols came into place. Along with testing, there were also calls to allow a concussion substitute at least five years ago as it was deemed too unsafe for players to continue featuring in the game even after being concussed. Initially, the New Zealand Cricket Board (NZC) and Cricket Australia (CA) allowed concussion substitutes for limited-overs competitions in 2016. After that, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) adopted the same for their domestic cricket scene from the 2018 season.

After a two-year trial in domestic cricket, the International Cricket Council (ICC), in July 2019, approved player replacement in the case of concussion or suspected concussion in all formats of international and first-class cricket worldwide. The rule, implemented since August 1, 2019, says that following a medical determination by a team representative in the case of an on-field concussion, the injured player will be substituted by a like-for-like replacement approved by the match referee.

Following the implementation of this rule ahead of the 2019 Ashes Series, Marnus Labuschagne became the first-ever substitute in International cricket after Steve Smith suffered a delayed concussion. Smith did return to the crease after getting hit on the neck by a Jofra Archer but he was removed from the game after showing symptoms of concussion. A concussion can only be properly ruled 48 hours after the first blow.

In that case, the match referee allowed a ‘like-for-like’ replacement as Marnus Labuschagne is also a middle-order batsman just like Steve Smith. Even though there weren’t any problems with that substitution, there were going to be issues with the overall understanding of the rule as it had quite of bit of grey area which needed refining.

Also Read: AUS v IND, 1st T20I: Concussion sub Yuzvendra Chahal spins India to victory

This issue propped up on Friday during the first T20I between Australia and India at the Manuka Oval in Canberra as the visitors substituted off Ravindra Jadeja to bring in Yuzvendra Chahal. Jadeja was hit on the helmet after he top-edged a ball from Mitchell Starc in the final over of the innings. Jadeja, however, continued to bat as he scored nine runs off the last four balls.

Although Jadeja could have had a delayed concussion just like Steve Smith during the 2019 Ashes Test, the talking point was that the Indian all-rounder wasn’t examined for a concussion immediately. The fact that Jadeja suffered a hamstring injury even before being hit on the helmet spiced up the discussion after India decide to bring on Chahal for the second innings.

There was visible displeasure from Australian coach Justin Langer as he seemed to be having a heated conversation with the match referee David Boon during the mid-innings break. The bone of contention here from Langer and experts who didn’t agree with the substitute seemed to be the fact that an all-rounder in the form of Ravindra Jadeja was replaced by a specialist spinner in Yuzvendra Chahal.

On paper, Chahal isn’t exactly a like-to-like replacement for Jadeja. However, the referee had the authority to approve the substitution due to the letter of the law. The rule states that “The ICC Match Referee should ordinarily approve a Concussion Replacement Request if the replacement is a like-for-like player whose inclusion will not excessively advantage his team for the remainder of the match.”

“In assessing whether the nominated Concussion Replacement should be considered a like-for-like player, the ICC Match Referee should consider the likely role the concussed player would have played during the remainder of the match, and the normal role that would be performed by the nominated Concussion Replacement.”

So, in context of the first T20I, the match referee David Boon deemed Chahal to be like-for-like for Jadeja as both are main bowlers for India. So, according to the rule book, both Boon and India were absolutely right in doing what they did. However, from the author’s point of view, there is a lot of grey area that needs to be explained better.

Especially, since Jadeja had suffered a hamstring injury, he might have not bowled in the second innings. So, the question arises as to whether the referee should have only allowed a batsman who bowls like Mayank Agarwal or Shreyas Iyer instead of Chahal? Although it might a very subjective argument, there is a case to say that Yuzvendra Chahal is a better T20 bowler than Jadeja. After all, Chahal is one of the best in the world in the shortest format of the game.

So, teams could use such scenarios tactically to improve their side especially after misreading the conditions at a venue. While no player or team plans for a concussion to happen, there is a big loop-hole which could be exploited when someone has to be substituted.

There is a case to make that Jadeja being a left-arm finger spinner is again not a like-for-like replacement for a leg-spinner in Chahal. This again goes back to the wrong assessment of the conditions as a team could possibly change a finger spinner for a leg spinner if the latter gets more purchase from the pitch. This will improve a side drastically even though they didn’t plan for it. There is also a lack of clarity regarding a situation where a bowler gets concussed mid-way through an innings.

There is a slight misunderstanding that concussion could occur only due to the impact on the neck or head. It can also happen to due to a strong impact on the body which happens in the case of a collision between two fielders while going for a catch or a fielder clashing with the hard advertising boards. After all one of the under-lying impacts of concussion is dizziness.

So, in case, a bowler gets concussed mid-way through his/her bowling spell and is substituted off, will the replacement be treated as a separate bowler? Or will he/she be allowed to only complete the quota of overs remaining for the player who got concussed? It might actually be the case that this scenario also falls under a replacement’s role in the remainder of the match as Mehedi Hasan Miraz wasn’t allowed to bowl after replacing a concussed Liton Das during the pink-ball Test between India and Bangladesh last year. Mehedi was the only possible substitution as Bangladesh didn’t have any specialist batsmen available and he couldn’t bowl as Liton Das was the team’s keeper.

Yet, there is still a lack of clarity around the whole concussion substitute rule which could confuse onlookers. It has to be reiterated once again that India and David Boon weren’t wrong in applying the rule in the first T20I. However, the International Cricket Council (ICC) needs to either amend the rule or make further clarifications on the existing conditions. This will ensure that a rule which was introduced for all the right causes could be used without any misunderstanding.