Hockey must protect its ball kids

Image Credit: IBNLive Sports.

Image Credit: IBNLive Sports.

The jury is out on the suggestion. While most involved with the game don't mind seeing it happen, they don't feel there is immediate requirement or urgency for this.

It whizzed past him. That journalist in the media box had no clue what whistled across his ear and then ricocheted off the wall behind him. It was the ball, as he figured out someone throwing it back into play. Then he could afford a smile, because it missed his skull by a margin as thin as coat of a paint.

You don't see that often, a hockey ball flying towards the stands, except if you are sitting right behind the goal post. There too these days you are saved by the grill. But what happened with that journalist during that Hockey India League (HIL) match could have turned nasty. Only good fortune prevented anything of that sort.

It was a flashback moment, as the mind quickly went back to a number of head-injury incidents on the cricket field over the past year. But unlike the game played on a 22-yard strip, you don't see many protective gears, except a fully-guarded goalkeeper, on the hockey field.

Of course, you can't compare hockey with cricket, where a batsman or a fielder doesn't need to be as fluid as hockey players who are always running up and down the field, covering on average 5 to 6 km over 60 minutes.

But what about those little kids on the sidelines, who ensure a ball is always in play and no time is lost. Why no protective gears for hockey's ball boys and girls, not even a helmet?

It's not an issue you can outrightly reject as a non-issue; in fact, it warrants attention. You can't deny these kids aren't at risk, you can't say they can never get hit. So then why not act rather than rue it at the stroke of a misfortune.

Former India forward Jagbir Singh, who is part of the Punjab Warriors coaching staff, feels if these kids can be protected, it will be in the interest of the game.

"Most of the ball boys or girls are young kids, closest to the action, watching the ball closely, learning the game as well. Though there has been no such reported incident, which is always good, I won't mind seeing these kids being protected," Jagbir told IBNLive.

He was also of the view that stadiums with stands closer to the action raise the level of this requirement.

"In stadiums where the stands are almost adjoining the playing area, this [protective measures] becomes even more relevant," he said.

Jagbir also threw light on why such incidents have fortunately never happened.

"If you see, these kids are at fair distance from each other, may be 2-3 on each of the sideline and one each along the baseline. So that reduces the possibility of them getting hit. And they are supposed to be at least 10 yards away from the spot in case of free-hit or a sideline hit," he explained.

Voices in the Hockey India (HI) office favoured Jagbir's last comment.

"The ball boys need to be very vigilant. If they are made to wear helmets, it may affect their vision. That's why there has been no reported incidents and no such regulations laid out," said an HI official.

"Moreover, the game these days is more about pushes and taps rather than hits. That reduces the risk for ball boys," the official added.

An interesting observation came from K Arumugam - a freelance hockey journalist and author who also runs an NGO called One Thousand Hockey Legs, promoting the sport at grass-root level, especially involving kids from the economically weaker section.

"This can definitely be tried on an experimental basis, considering the Hockey 5s format that is catching up. There, with only five players, you see more scoops and long balls being played."

But he added that with most of these ball boys being budding players as well, they are aware what to do and how to protect themselves.

"Most of these kids who do ball duties are players themselves. They have the reflexes and match alertness to be on their guard. But definitely protective gears can be tried, maybe not helmets, but something like a facemask that players use during penalty corners," Arumugam said.

So clearly, the jury is out on the suggestion. While most involved with the game don't mind seeing it happen, they don't feel there is immediate requirement or urgency for this.

But what's the harm in protecting our future stars.