CUL­TURE OF GAME NOT TO BLAME FOR THIS TRAGEDY

The Cricket Paper - - OPINION - DEREK PRINGLE

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

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

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

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