Where would we be without sports commentators? Somewhere happy and peaceful? Perhaps.
At lunch time before going back out on to the SCG to continue his innings against NSW, Phillip Hughes told South Australia’s coach, Darren Berry, that the bowlers had come hard at him in the first two hours of play. And that he had respected and welcomed their challenge.
This statement confirmed what we all knew, that Hughes understood the zen of cricket. It is, particularly in its first class manifestation, a long and difficult game. It is hard on the nerves and body of players, and often it is dangerous.
The best players know this and would not have it any other way.
» LEMON: Hughes in the foreground as Test cricket begins
» Captain Clarke the man for the current climate
» Michael Clarke to play in first Test
» MS Dhoni to miss first Test, Virat Kohli Indian captain
So when play for the first Test against India starts there has been a call from the greatest of Test players, including Ricky Ponting, that the first ball bowled by an Australian should be a bouncer.
The irony here is that the ball that felled Hughes was actually a slow bouncer, not a traditional fast bouncer. The slowness of the bouncer, rather than any extreme pace, is what caused the damage. Hughes went for the hook. He was through his shot well before the ball arrived. His head had turned exposing the back of his unprotected neck.
John O’Hara, the writer of the famous novel about the inevitability of the death of the main character, Appointment in Samara, on learning of the death of his great friend George Gershwin wrote: “They tell me George Gershwin died today. But I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to”.
I think this was the reaction around the world to the death of Phillip Hughes. We didn’t want to believe it. We couldn’t believe it. Finally, after an agonising and powerful funeral service, we have to acknowledge the fact of his passing.
It will stay with most of us for the rest of our lives. The young man, number 408 of Australian Test cricketers, whose cricket career grew before our very eyes, will be forever young and forever 63 not out.
The Roman poet Virgil wrote about ‘lacrimae rerum‘, the tears of things. The death of a young man at the crease showing signs of a batting maturity that would surely have converted his brilliant promise into batting greatness is a sharp, poignant reminder of the mortality of all of us.
There are many similarities between the career and passing of Phillip with that of Archie Jackson, whose career was blighted with the ravages of TB. He died after coughing blood and collapsing during a match in Brisbane.
Jackson, as with Hughes, was a cricketing prodigy. He was the youngest player at 15 years and one month to play first grade cricket in Sydney. He played for NSW at the age of 17. In 1929, when he was only 19, he scored 164 runs in his first Test innings, against England, the youngest player to do this.
As Jackson neared his century on 96, he was advised by his batting partner, another prodigy Don Bradman, to play carefully for the next four runs. The first in the session, from Harold Lawrwood, was smashed to the point boundary by Jackson.
When I read about this I remembered how Hughes in his second Test on 94 smashed a six to bring up his century. This was followed with another century in the second innings, with Hughes being the youngest cricketer to perform this feat.
When Jackson (1909-1933) died he became the youngest Test cricketer to die. In 2007 Manjural Rana was killed in a motor accident aged 22. Now we have Phillip Hughes (1988-2014) joining this sad list.
Just two days after the death of Phillip Hughes we learnt of the passing of Hillel Oscar, a former Israel cricket captain, who died from head injuries from a ball smashed back down the pitch while he was umpiring.
These two deaths, Hughes and Oscar, are reminders that cricket is a potentially lethal game, like most sports. There is always the possibility, even if it is as remote as 1/10 million, of something going very wrong. The excellent SCG Members Sports Diary for 2015 has a sidebar article revealing that before Phillip Hughes’ death two other sportspeople have died from injuries at the SCG.
The first was a rugby player, Andrew C Grimes, who died from a spinal-cord injury received while playing a club match at the SCG.
In 1939, a league player Charles Broomham, playing on the wing for North Sydney, was hurt in a tackle in a reserve match at the SCG and subsequently died from internal bleeding at St Vincent’s Hospital.
Two players I played with as a young man at cricket and rugby died. Peter Preston, who was destined to be a double All Black in the opinion of many experts, was killed at net practice when he was retrieving a ball and was struck by a ball hit from a nearby net. And Brian Ford dropped dead during a match apparently from a heart attack.
The point about all this is that there is always a risk in anything we do in life, and sport is no exception to this iron law. We have to accept this fact. This means that where improvements to safety can be made they should be. But this is done in the knowledge that all the risks cannot be removed from an activity like cricket without compromising the integrity of the game so dramatically that it has no real challenges to test the mettle and skills of players.
The use of helmets is an obvious case where a dramatic change has been made, and for the better for players and the game.
When I think about the generations of players up to Tony Greig’s brilliant concept of ‘the crash helmet’ who played without any real protection against balls directed at their heads I shudder at the stupidity of it. So many players got hit. Thankfully there were no deaths. The need now, which the manufacturers have acknowledged, is to produce safer helmets which are easier and more comfortable to use.
I think, too, that our notions about how close players field at silly mid-on and silly mid-off need to be re-thought. Back in 1948 Sid Barnes was taken off to hospital from being hit by a ball smashed into his stomach during Don Bradman’s last Ashes series. Barnes fielded so close to the batsman at silly mid-on he could have picked his pocket if he were so minded.
In Under-12 matches players are not permitted to field within 10 metres in front of the wicket. I think this is a rule that should be brought in for all cricket. Players at 10 metres from the bat should be required to wear a helmet and a protector.
New Zealand defeated Pakistan last week without playing a silly mid-on or a silly mid-off.
There is also a need, as former player Martin Crowe puts it, for cricket ‘to calm down’. The tone of cricket, he argues, has become to nasty and vicious. He instances Michael Clarke’s reference to a ‘broken arm’ in the last Ashes series. The game should be played, according to Crowe, “respectfully, hard and fair. The game has turned too lippy, too edgy. Let’s chill a bit”.
I agree with this. There are few sports that allow the constant and often vicious sledging that is now part of Test cricket. In rugby, for instance, sledging like this is penalised as being ‘against the spirit of the game’.
The same thing should happen in cricket.
Once again, we have New Zealand not sledging against Pakistan, and winning a terrific victory.
New Zealand did not bowl bouncers, either. But how effective bouncers would have been on the placid Test pitch is moot. I think Adam Gilchrist is right, however, when he says that bouncers are “part and parcel of the challenge between bat and ball”.
This takes us back to Archie Jackson and his funeral and its implications for Test cricket 81 years later. Jackson died in Brisbane while the Test was being played there between February 10-16, 1933. Many members of the Australian and England team came to see him in hospital.
His body was brought back to Sydney on the same train that carried both the teams to play the next Test at the SCG. The pallbearers at Jackson’s funeral were Bill Woodfull (the Australian captain), Bill Ponsford, Stan McCabe, Bert Oldfield, Vic Richardson and Don Bradman.
Richardson, opening the batting, made a pair of ducks. Woodfull 14 and 67, Bradman 48 (bowled Harold Larwood) and 71 (bowled Hedley Verity), McCabe 73 and 4, Oldfield, the wicketkeeper who had been hit sickeningly on the head by Larwood at Adelaide, 52 and 5.
Larwood bowling his bodyline method, which Jackson in his newspaper columns insisted held no threat to the game, had figures of 4/98 and 1/44 in the Test.
Douglas Jardine, the captain Bligh of English cricket, forced Larwood to stay on the field in the second innings while Bradman was still batting. Bradman was bowled by the left-arm spinner Verity playing a wild, uncharacteristic slog.
As Bradman made his way to the pavilon he was joined by a limping Larwood who had finally been given permission to leave the field.
The best way for the Australian and Indian players at Adelaide to honour the memory of Phillip Hughes is for them to play in a similar hard, tough and respectful manner. Real Test cricket, in other words. The players change but the splendid game goes on.