Sim­ply no win­ners amid Hugh­esin­quest acrimony

The Cricket Paper - - FEATURE -

Tris­tan Lavel­lete casts an an­a­lyt­i­cal eye over the is­sues raised by events at Syd­ney Coro­ners Court last week

Un­doubt­edly it has been a mis­er­able start to the Aus­tralian cricket sea­son. That is not a ref­er­ence to Aus­tralia’s wretched re­cent tour of South Africa, an es­sen­tially in­vis­i­ble se­ries that few have no­ticed Down Un­der.

Un­com­fort­ably, at­ten­tion last week cen­tred on the in­quest by the NSW coro­ner’s court into the tragic death of Phil Hughes nearly two years ago. The 25year-old was struck on the base of the skull while bat­ting at the Syd­ney Cricket Ground (SCG) on Novem­ber 25, 2014, and died in hospi­tal two days later as a re­sult of a trau­matic haem­or­rhage caused by the blow.

After five ex­cru­ci­at­ing days of this in­tensely pub­lic probe, there ap­pears noth­ing of sub­stance has come of it and, in­stead, at the heart of it all is a man­i­fest­ing bit­ter dis­pute be­tween the Hughes fam­ily and Cricket Aus­tralia and its play­ers.

There have been no win­ners from this som­bre spec­ta­cle, only ac­cu­sa­tions and a dredg­ing of cricket’s sad­dest episode. In Aus­tralia, the pre­vail­ing sen­ti­ment from the pub­lic was cyn­i­cism over the whole ex­er­cise.

That raises an im­por­tant ques­tion.Why was this in­quest held? Many believe the in­quest should not have taken place but given that it was a death deemed “ac­ci­den­tal” in the work­place then un­der law in New South Wales it was ap­pro­pri­ate for the state coro­ner to un­der­take a re­view, a process sup­ported by the Hughes fam­ily.

In a bid to un­der­stand what ex­actly went on dur­ing that fate­ful day and, most im­por­tantly, to find more safety mea­sures for crick­eters en­sured an in­quest rightly was held though Cricket Aus­tralia had al­ready un­der­taken an in­de­pen­dent re­view. That re­view con­cluded Hughes’ death was a tragic freak ac­ci­dent and us­ing a now man­dated Bri­tish Stan­dard hel­met would not have been a pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sure.

Still, the Hughes fam­ily had ob­vi­ously been hold­ing on to gen­uine con­cerns and those reser­va­tions de­served air­ing.

It’s just too bad the in­quiry be­came mired in rab­bit holes, which one is to safely as­sume was not its orig­i­nal in­ten­tion. From the out­set, NSW coro­ner Michael Barnes said the hear­ing was “not to lay blame. (Hughes) death was a ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent, but it does not mean cricket can­not be made safer”.

Un­for­tu­nately, the in­quest ap­peared to spi­ral into a witch hunt, specif­i­cally at­tempt­ing to find cul­prits for sledging ac­cu­sa­tions and ap­par­ent ag­gres­sive short-pitched bowl­ing tac­tics. Brad Haddin, Doug Bollinger, Dave Warner and Tom Cooper were all grilled about events on that day and later had their char­ac­ters at­tacked with Greg Melick, the coun­sel for the Hughes fam­ily, ques­tion­ing the hon­esty of the four crick­eters.

The con­tin­ual stick­ing point was Bollinger’s al­leged “I’m go­ing to kill you” sledge di­rected at Hughes and Cooper, his bat­ting part­ner at the time. Even if he did say those words, it is a se­vere stretch to believe they had any im­pact on the tragedy that later struck.

Per­haps one sil­ver lin­ing from this whole sor­did af­fair is of a pos­si­ble re­cal­i­bra­tion over sledging, cer­tainly in Aus­tralian cricket where crude ban­ter is gen­er­ally en­cour­aged. As part of ev­i­dence by crick­eter, and Hughes fam­ily friend Matt Day, Bollinger al­legedly said that he would never sledge “I am go­ing to kill you” again on the cricket field.

Legendary Aus­tralian cap­tain Ian Chap­pell be­lieved the in­quest would highlight the dan­gers of ver­bal sledging. “There’s only one pos­i­tive thing that can pos­si­bly come from the con­fused path taken by the in­quest into Phillip Hughes’s tragic demise; the ad­min­is­tra­tors might fi­nally realise they’ve been too le­nient when it comes to the amount of on-field chat­ter,” Chap­pell wrote in his col­umn for The Daily Tele­graph. “The more play­ers are al­lowed to say, the greater the like­li­hood some­thing per­sonal or of­fen­sive will be said.”

Maybe, just maybe, some of th­ese triv­ial and point­less ver­bal clashes that often blight cricket matches will cease with play­ers more wary of po­ten­tial reper­cus­sions al­though it would be folly to believe a sud­den dra­matic change in be­hav­iour is im­mi­nent.

The other dom­i­nant in­qui­si­tion dur­ing pro­ceed­ings re­volved around short­pitched bowl­ing with NSW play­ers deny­ing they had an un­to­ward plan to ruf­fle Hughes. Once again, ac­cu­sa­tions and the line of ques­tion­ing grav­i­tated to­wards murky ter­rain. Any­one who had ever watched Hughes bat knew he had some­thing of a weak­ness against the short ball and NSW cer­tainly weren’t the first to ex­ploit that.

Their bowl­ing that day at Hughes was not ‘Body­line’ nor was it any­thing like the West Indies at their ter­ri­fy­ing pomp, con­firmed by for­mer in­ter­na­tional um­pire Si­mon Taufel who stated that 20 bounc­ers were di­rected at Hughes but reg­u­la­tions were not breached.

De­spite its staid con­no­ta­tions, the harsh real­ity is that cricket can be a dan­ger­ous sport. In­juries hap­pen fre­quently and, un­for­tu­nately, oc­ca­sion­ally catas­tro­phe rears its ugly head. The only ways to pre­vent what hap­pened would be to outlaw bounc­ers en­tirely or use a ten­nis ball in­stead. In other words, the sport we love would cease to ex­ist.

What needs to be fur­ther ex­plored is ad­vanc­ing tech­nol­ogy of a tried and tested new form of hel­met to help al­le­vi­ate the in­jury Hughes sus­tained. Ev­ery ef­fort in the game needs to fo­cus on this as­pect and the in­quest should have gone down this route.

It was an un­sat­is­fy­ing week, none more so than for the Hughes fam­ily who stormed out of the court­room on the in­quest’s fi­nal day. Dur­ing pro­ceed­ings, they opened them­selves up to the na­tion’s gaze and there has been un­fair pub­lic slan­der pro­lif­er­at­ing through so­cial me­dia about their mo­tives.

The Hughes fam­ily de­serve sym­pa­thy as they con­tinue to be haunted by a sense­less death to a beloved fam­ily mem­ber. Hughes’ death be­ing played out so pub­li­cally no doubt has ex­ac­er­bated their grief. It is unimag­in­able the pain the Hughes fam­ily have ex­pe­ri­enced in the past two years and en­tirely un­der­stand­able they are search­ing for an­swers to make some sense from los­ing a loved one for no ra­tio­nal rea­son.

One can only hope this in­quest, with find­ings set to be an­nounced in early Novem­ber, will pro­vide some form of cathar­sis for the Hughes fam­ily.With the in­quest now over, maybe there, too, will be clo­sure for the play­ers still dev­as­tated about los­ing a great mate.

Per­haps the pass­ing of time will unify the con­flict­ing par­ties but, right now, a sad chasm ex­ists and splin­tered fur­ther after this dam­ag­ing in­quest.

The harsh real­ity is cricket can be a dan­ger­ous sport. In­juries hap­pen and, un­for­tu­nately, oc­ca­sion­ally catas­tro­phe raises its ugly head

PIC­TURE: Getty Images

Ter­ri­ble loss: Phillip Hughes bat­ting for Aus­tralia against Eng­land in 2013 and, inset, his par­ents Vir­ginia and Greg at the in­quest in Syd­ney

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