The Concussion Conundrum – Examining the New Substitution Provision in Cricket

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[Author: Sanjeet Aggarwal, a first year law student at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad]

While almost all widely viewed team sports- Basketball, Football, Volleyball, Rugby authorize players’ substitution during games, the traditionalist sport of Cricket has always been an odd duck in this respect. Substitutions, both tactical and injury-induced, have been prohibited in cricket for centuries. However, with increased medical research and awareness about the dangers of head injuries in sports and the long-term implications of concussions, the wise old men of the Marylebone Cricket Club have had to re-evaluate their insistence on living by the traditions of the game, over the safety of their players. 

In July 2019, the International Cricket Council allowed like-for-like concussion substitutes if a player gets hit on the head. “Teams will have the option of replacing a player who has sustained a head or neck injury during an international match and has subsequently been diagnosed with a concussion or suspected concussion,” the ICC rule states. The rules’ changes were welcomed with much enthusiasm from both the viewers of the sport and ex-players, hoping that this could reduce the public perception of cricket as a dangerous sport. This view has been prevalent ever since the tragic passing of Phil Hughes after being struck by a bouncer on his neck. While the rules are lucid and do a decent job explaining the technical requirements and protocols of how, when and in which cases the match-referee can and cannot permit substitution, there exist a few grey areas, allowing for open interpretation and possible strategic exploitation by teams. 

To analyse the provisions for a concussion substitution in cricket, one must first contrast and compare the substitution protocols discussed previously with other sports. While substitutions in other sports are permitted, both for tactical reasons and to provide relief to an injured player, the concussion substitute in cricket, as indicative of its name, exists purely to provide relief and medical assistance to a player facing a concussion, and to ensure that a substitution can be made so that the team is not disadvantaged. For instance, in football, where a team trailing by two goals, might substitute its defensive players in favour of an attacking striker, a cricketing team can only substitute a player if he has been concussed, and this can never be for a tactical reason. This divergence puts cricketing substitutions in a unique position. How can the match referees and umpires positively distinguish a genuine injury and call for replacement from a tactical usage of this provision? How can they prevent a concussed player from continuing to play? And how do they determine what exactly constitutes a like-for-like replacement? All of these questions must be considered and analysed to determine and examine this new law’s eventual implication on the game of cricket.

Preventing Tactical Substitutions and Concussed Players from Continuing

The rules incorporated by the ICC in respect of the above-mentioned issues, as specified in the ICC Playing Handbook are as follows- A concussion or suspected concussion must have been formally diagnosed by the Team Medical Representative. The Team Medical Representative or Team Manager shall submit a Concussion Replacement Request to the ICC Match Referee on a standard form.

These rules place the onus of diagnosing a concussion on the team’s medical representative. This issue is contentious and has invited much debate and criticism. To grant the team’s medical representative, the power to determine if the player is concussed has an apparent conflict of interest. If a player’s presence is crucial at a particular juncture of a game, a diagnosis might be made favourably to allow him to continue playing. Considering that the onset of symptoms of a concussion are often belated and the player’s abilities or reflexes might not be immediately affected, it would make practical sense for the team to have the player on the field. An example of the same can be seen in Hashim Amla continuing to play in the 2019 World Cup opener, despite being struck on the head by a lethal bouncer and visibly looking unsettled.

Moreover, cricket has long carried the problematic and often detrimental notion of ‘courage’, showcased by continuing to play on-field despite being injured. This also results in players downplaying their symptoms and conditions, and instead opt to play, showcasing a hero-complex, hence nullifying the effect of the objectives of the ICC’s rules. A notable example of this happening is in the second test of the Ashes 2019 at Lords, when Steven Smith brushed off the medics and stayed on the field, scoring a crucial 90 runs for his team when the other batsmen were not able to adapt to the bounce of the pitch. On being criticized for allowing him to continue playing, Cricket Australia gave the defence that his symptoms had not begun to manifest until the next day, thus rejecting the accusations of it being termed a tactical decision, given his importance at that stage of the match.

In contrast to the discussed scenario, the medical representative of a team might also make a favourable concussion diagnosis if the substitution of a particular player into the game could allow the team to gain a tactical edge in the contest. It is essential to note that there is no set list of activities or injuries that might result in a concussion. A concussion is a type of injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. In a cricket game, a concussion could be incurred by a hit on the head from a bouncer, a high impact catch or dive while fielding, a collision while running between the wickets or in the outfield, or by any other fall or high impact incident during the game. The intensity and type of activity that might cause a concussion to a particular individual vary vastly. To make an immediate and correct medical diagnosis of a concussion in a player is often not possible according to any objective standard, but is based on the subjective response and immediate behaviour of the player.

Therefore, the likelihood of a team’s medical representative diagnosing a struggling on-field batsman or an exhausted bowler, after a minor hit on the head or a low impact collision is neither unlikely nor unforeseen. Since the decision rests with them and lacks an objective standard, it becomes challenging for the match referee to intervene and stop the misuse of this rule by the team management. A much-discussed and criticized incident was when Ravindra Jadeja was replaced by Yuzvendra Chahal in the first T20 international against Australia in Canberra. While Jadeja was hit in the head by a bouncer, he continued to bat and later suffered from a hamstring injury which prevented him from running and rotating the strike. At this point, it looked like his hamstring injury would prevent him from bowling, and India would have to pass the reins to a part-time bowler. However, the crowd, and most obviously, the Australian team management, was left perplexed and annoyed when it was informed that Chahal had replaced Jadeja as a concussion substitute. Their questions were pointed and relevant. Why was Jadeja allowed to continue to bat out the innings if he had indeed suffered a concussion? If his hamstring was not injured, would he still be substituted for another player? Since the call was that of the team’s medical representative, there was no way of ascertaining the actual severity of the injury or reasoning for the substitution. This problem was further compounded by the fact that Jadeja, an all-rounder, was replaced under the like-for-like clause by Chahal, a not so-like for a like player, being a specialist spinner, leading us to the analysis of second notable issue with the ICC’s concussion protocol.

The Ambiguity with “Like-For-Like” Replacements

In a sport like cricket, wherein an individual player’s contributions can be perceived in distinct departments, be it bowling, fielding, captaincy or wicketkeeping, the decision as to what qualifies as a like for like replacement is bound to attract controversy and invite a debate. The rules brought in by the ICC are as follows- 

“1.2.8 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. If the ICC Match Referee believes that the inclusion of the nominated Concussion Replacement, when performing their usual role, would excessively advantage their team, the Match Referee may impose such conditions upon the identity and involvement of the Concussion Replacement as he/she sees fit, in line with the overriding objective of facilitating a like-for-like replacement for the concussed player.”

While the rules specify the requirements for the like-for-like replacements briefly, as looked upon previously in the Jadeja-Chahal scenario, we have established by example that a team could, in the case of lack of exact like-for-like replacements, bring in a specialist not so like-for-like a player and gain an advantage. Nothing is stopping a team from bringing in a fresh, fast bowler in case of a spinner if their squad does not have a substitute spinner at hand, or bring in an explosive finishing batsman late in the innings, substituting an exhausted player with a low death over strike rate. The same rules can permit the change of specialist wicketkeepers like Wridhiman Saha to possibly bring in a player like Rishabh Pant once the fielding is over. The lack of clarity regarding the nature and specificities of the like-for-like replacements gives considerable leeway for the teams to exploit the rules and gain an advantage owing to the same. 

Possible Solutions and Modifications to the New Laws

While the efforts of the ICC to introduce and accommodate the substitution rule, keeping in line with the enhanced needs for medical safety and well-being of the player are commendable, the cricketing community would be benefitted if certain modifications and improvements could be made to them, so as to bring more transparency and uniformity to the protocols and the game of cricket. Following are some of the possible modifications and amendments that could be made to the new laws-

  1. Independent Diagnosis: The medical analysis and diagnosis of the injured players should be made by an independent specialist doctor appointed by the ICC instead of the respective team doctors. This would eliminate the scope of coloured diagnoses being made to gain a competitive advantage and provide an objective standard for replacements.
  2. Mandated Testing: Like in rugby, once a player suffers from a collision that could potentially lead to a concussion, he has no option but to go off the field for testing to ascertain his condition. A similar measure could be adopted where a break could be taken for testing, and the next batsmen or fielder can temporarily replace the player for a 10–15-minute testing period. This would prevent players from waving off or ignoring the medical attention that could be necessary for them. They can later be allowed to continue once deemed fit or be substituted if deemed fit.
  3. Allotted Replacements: To prevent a team from misusing and replacing players according to the situation of the match at hand tactically, instead of adhering to the like-for-like protocol, the teams should be required to submit a list of pre-allotted replacements for all players in its playing eleven, specifying which other player would be replacing them, in case of a concussion. This list must be approved by the match referee and could be adjusted with modifications suggested. As the replacements would be pre-approved and decided, the scope for tactical changes would be minimized.

*For any query, feedback or discussion, the Author can be contacted at [].

PREFERRED CITATION: Sanjeet Agarwal, The Concussion Conundrum – Examining the New Substitution Provision in Cricket, SLPRR, <; April 1, 2021.

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