SYDNEY (Reuters) - Former Australia cricketer Bryce McGain wore a new, safety-conscious helmet for a series of televised one-day matches a few years ago - and quickly found himself the butt of commentator and player jibes.
"They explained the technology and I liked the idea that it was safer," McGain said of the futuristic-looking helmet he wore in 2009. "The commentators had a go, saying 'He looks like Darth Vader', 'He looks like Robocop'."
"It didn't bother me too much, but only a couple of other players wore it and if you don't have the players at the top, the ones on TV, wearing them, they won't sell."
They didn't. Sports manufacturer Albion Sports Pty Ltd pulled the helmet, which was designed to provide more coverage and deflection capability, after poor sales.
Helmet safety is in the spotlight after Australia cricketer Phillip Hughes sustained serious head injuries when struck by a short delivery on Tuesday. Hughes, 25, died on Thursday, never having regained consciousness from the blow that experts likened to the trauma experienced by car crash victims.
Manufacturers say Hughes's accident was unusual and nothing on the market now would likely have prevented it.
But they also say advances in cricket helmet technology are being stymied by a lack of enforcement of international safety standards and the reluctance of elite-level players who prefer the game's traditional aesthetics to adopt new styles.
Investment in new designs has gone instead to other sports such as cycling and baseball, which have been more open to radically different helmet designs than the so-called "gentleman's game".
A number of players, including West Indies batting great Brian Lara, say the incident was a rare but unavoidable reminder that the game is a dangerous one.
Others say that more could be done in a sport that became popular thanks to English aristocrats in the 17th century but only introduced helmets, without enforcement, in the 1970s.
"The ability of manufacturers to innovate is reliant on players embracing new technology and they are very, very traditional in cricket," Brendan Denning, chief executive of Melbourne-based Albion, said in a telephone interview.
"At the moment, we make incremental changes while trying not to upset the traditionalists," Denning said. "Other sports, like horse racing, more readily accept that injury is an issue."
The International Cricket Council (ICC) and the British Standards Institution (BCI) agreed new helmet safety guidelines a year ago, the first revision of the code in 15 years. The changes focussed on risks including a ball slipping between the faceguard and the peak and a ball hitting the faceguard.
Cricket Australia supports the new guidelines but neither the ICC nor any country regulators have moved to actively enforce the new rules, meaning players can continue to wear older helmets - if any at all.
"The issue now is having the professional and amateur players invest in the new products," said Tom Milsom, founder and director of another major manufacturer, Ayrtek Ltd. "What it all comes down to really is enforcement."
Albion's Denning said enforced standards "would justify us spending more on new technology".
The ICC, Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA), which represents players, declined to comment on helmet technology. The ACA said safety was a major concern and it would review the Hughes incident.
Officials haven't confirmed exactly where Hughes was struck, but footage suggests the batsman was hit on the back of the head, just beneath the helmet and behind his ear.
British sports firm Masuri Group Ltd, which made the 'Original Test' helmet worn by Hughes, said its new 'Vision Series' model released about a year ago offers more protection. Masuri, the third major manufacturer of cricket helmets, declined to comment further.
Helmets have made some progress. Many now have faceguards manufactured from titanium and shells from carbon fibre, lighter materials than the traditional steel and specialist plastics.
Albion's Denning said there were still several more possibilities for improvement, dismissing arguments about potentially limiting mobility or visibility.
"You could say that for baseball and we've had queries from the U.S. about making helmets for them," he said. "They're surpassing cricket."
(Additional reporting by Sarah Young in London and Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Emily Kaiser and Mark Bendeich)