The ball that struck Phil Hughes was intended to intimidate, not to harm. But cricket lovers can’t have one without the other, no matter what we like to tell ourselves.
Cricket culture has long maintained a curious doublethink around the issue of fast bowling. Scaring a batsman with aggressive bowling is a praiseworthy part of the game. Trying to injure someone is crossing the line.
Michael Clarke inadvertently highlighted this illusory distinction with his threats to James Anderson in last summer’s Ashes series. The ICC fined Clarke for telling Anderson to ‘get ready for a broken f*****g arm’, and the cricket community tut-tutted at this breach of the unspoken code that governs the game.
Simultaneously, Mitchell Johnson was celebrated for producing the kinds of deliveries that could have made Clarke’s threat a reality.
In cricket, as in broader society, we treat those who consciously seek to cause injury more harshly. Whether a bouncer is delivered with intimidation or actual physical harm in mind, the danger to the batsman is the same. It is not intent that is coming at your helmet, it’s five-and-a-half-ounces of cork and leather.
Short pitched bowling is often framed as an element of the mental battle in cricket, akin to the sledging that often accompanies it. There is no question that it is often succeeds on that front.
It makes batsmen uncomfortable. It generates fear because, as we have been reminded so devastatingly, it is far from an empty threat.
Fear does not exist in a vacuum. It is intimately linked with the risk of physical injury. Nobody really fears a tennis ball in the backyard, no matter where it’s pitched. Batsmen feel uncomfortable facing threatening bowling because it is just that, physically threatening.
What’s more, we as cricket fans have shown that we like it that way.
Bowlers who profess a desire to intimidate batsmen, while simultaneously claiming they do not want to see anyone hurt no doubt genuinely hold both of those desires. But they are incompatible.
As cricket fans, we adopt a similarly conflicted mindset. We want players to be safe, but we love watching Dennis Lillee or Jeff Thomson, Brett Lee or Johnson snarl and bristle. We want to see balls whistling past the helmet.
We also want to see batsmen stand their ground and value their wicket above all else. Few images generate more pride in an Australian cricket fan than that of Steve Waugh taking a battering in 1995 from Curtly Ambrose in Trinidad but refusing to yield.
Derek Randall doffing his cap to Lillee after narrowly avoiding a bouncer during the Centenary Test is a similarly revered moment of bravado. We want players to know the risk, accept it and succeed in spite of it.
To their eternal credit, the cricket public has rallied to support Sean Abbott. He produced a standard delivery, identical to thousands that have come before it, and has been left dealing with an emotional burden few could imagine as a result.
Nobody would argue that any blame lies with Abbott, the result was tragically beyond his control, but it would be naïve to suggest a bouncer hitting a batsman is simply bad luck.
There are calls for further improvement to the quality of protective equipment, reforms to the rules of the game and changes to how we coach young batsmen. Improvements to protective equipment have already mitigated the physical risk to batsmen of recent generations.
The increased prevalence of pull and hook shots in the modern game demonstrates that fear of short pitched bowling has declined as a result. But in the midst of our search for ways to further minimise or eliminate the risk of something like this happening again, it is also worth acknowledging the false dichotomy underlying the place of intimidation in cricket.
Intimidating fast bowling is entertaining. Threatening the body is now an accepted part of the struggle between bat and ball. But, if it is an aspect of the game we intend to keep, we should accept that any changes we make to mitigate the risk to batsmen will also reduce the effectiveness of this type of bowling.
If we do want to maintain fear as part of the game, then we should acknowledge that occasionally, the price we pay to keep it will be devastatingly high.