CULTURE OF GAME NOT TO BLAME FOR THIS TRAGEDY
The dead cannot speak, but if they could I’m not sure Phillip Hughes would have approved of the rancour that has formed between his still grieving family and the one he later became a cherished member of – Australian cricket.
It is almost two years since Hughes was fatally struck by a bouncer in a Shield game at the Sydney Cricket Ground. At the time, his death was thought to have been little more than a case of desperate bad luck, a piece of freakish misfortune after the blow he suffered ruptured an artery in his neck.
The whole of Australia mourned, a young country grieving one of their own who’d gone too soon. But this week, a Coroner’s inquest into whether Hughes’ death could have been avoided has shone a light on Australian cricket and its culture of sledging, intimidation and machismo, and painted an unsavoury picture, at least to the lay person.
Doug Bollinger, a fiery but hardly express fast bowler, has been accused of saying to Hughes, during his innings, that “I’m going to kill you”. It is something Bollinger says he cannot recall uttering but, even if he had, it would not have been the first time such a threat would have passed the lips of a fast bowler. Indeed, Wasim Akram once said as much to me during an Essex /Lancashire match, and followed it up with a few bouncers.Yet his utterance and response were so hackneyed within the game that I never ever saw it worthy of comment until now.
At Hughes’ inquest, sledging and the fact that he received more than his fair share of short-pitched balls are being painted almost as if they were circumstantial evidence in causing his death, at least in the eyes of the Hughes family for whom their son’s passing understandably remains very raw.
Top-level sport is brutal in picking at weakness and Phillip Hughes was a fine batsman whose vulnerability was against balls that were short and directed at his body. It was a flaw well known in cricket circles. In the build-up to the 2009 Ashes, in which Hughes played a brief role, Australia had a warm-up match against England Lions at Worcester. In that game Hughes was bombarded with bouncers by Steve Harmison and did not reach double figures in either innings. The assault provided England with a template by which to attack Hughes, which they did, and after two Tests of low scores, he was promptly dropped.
According to Simon Taufel, who was present at the SCG during the New South Wales match against South Australia but was not umpiring, 23 bouncers were sent down in the 291 balls bowled. Hughes was struck by the 20th he received, bowled by Sean Abbott, an amount lawyers at the inquest have painted as excessive. If you take into consideration the fact that Hughes faced 161 of those 290 balls and that the three other batsmen who made it to the crease faced the remaining deliveries between them, then he should have faced 13 bouncers if they had been distributed equally by balls faced. Instead, he received seven more than his fair share, though is that excessive given his well known technical weakness against the short ball directed at his body?
The terrible irony is that batsmen are now better protected against fast bowling than at any time in history, what with high spec protective equipment and limitations on bouncers. The Hughes family will not want to hear this, but there are those who regret that the fear factor in batting has been diminished by this and with it the bravery required to cope.
Who, for instance, can forget the riveting theatre provided by Michael Atherton, after he gloved Allan Donald, stood his ground, and was given not out during the Trent Bridge Test of 1998. Annoyed, Donald came round the wicket and tried to pepper Atherton into submission, the episode becoming a drama within a drama. Bruised but unbowed, Atherton saw England to victory with an unbeaten 98 that had required skill, courage and an umpire’s honest mistake.
Of course, there are times when the pace and firepower of fast bowlers overwhelms the balance of the game, as at Sabina Park in February 1986. There, on a corrugated pitch, against a quartet of Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Patrick Patterson, England’s batsmen were terrorised, being twice dismissed in the 150s. Graham Gooch, who made 51 in England’s first innings, reckons it is the only time he feared getting struck on the head and not being able to do much about it.Writing in the Guardian, Matthew Engel likened the spectacle to a mediaeval goring such was its visceral and ghoulish appeal.
Engel also argued that nobody in history had probably bowled as fearsomely as Patterson – a big, strong man egged on by his local crowd – did in that match. Five years later, the International Cricket Council limited the number of bouncers allowed to one per over for each batsman.
The circumstances leading to Hughes being struck were nothing like that. Indeed, Brad Haddin said at the inquest that:“It was a normal game of cricket. There was nothing different to the game that I had played for many years. The game was played in good spirits.”
A batsman’s death during a cricket match is not an everyday occurrence yet the practices that have been under scrutiny in Sydney’s Coroner’s court, were, especially in Australia. That the machismo and aggression found in all strata of cricket there is a long way from the genteel image of English cricket on the village green with its courtly manners and cream teas is well known. But it should not be in the dock over Hughes’ death for being itself.
Before the inquest began, James Sutherland, Cricket Australia’s CEO, said he hoped “something good comes from it”, but that is looking a forlorn hope for the Hughes family who are seeking reasons for their son’s death where none but fate, at least from the viewpoint of cricket, probably exist.
The death of a young and talented sportsman like Hughes still has the capacity to shock us all but the truth, if such a word can be used in this context, is probably mundane.
In a sport that talks of making your own luck, Phillip Hughes’ simply ran out on that fateful summer’s day in Sydney. With tragic consequences.
Top-level sport is brutal at picking at weakness and Phillip Hughes was a fine batsman whose vulnerability was against short balls directed at his body
In control: Phillip Hughes bats during his final innings before being felled by Sean Abbott’s bouncer. Despite his brilliance as a Test-class batsman, bowlers had been known to target the Australian with short-pitched balls