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Risk, danger and cricket: The death of Phillip Hughes

Phil Hughes death was a tragedy, but sadly it wasn't the first to strike cricket. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, File)
Roar Guru
15th October, 2016
1

“It is abundantly clear that once the tragic accident had occurred, there was nothing that could have been done to prevent Phillip’s [Hughes’] death.” – Kristina Stern SC, ABC News, Oct 14, 2016.

Throughout cricket’s packed and delicious history of statistics, pitch influences, and characters, one dark feature has remained. Fatalities from the delivery, aimed with speed and literally lethal accuracy, have been few and far between – but they have happened.

The era of World Series Cricket was arguably one of the most dangerous. Skulls became points of eager reference for some of the fastest bowlers to have ever grasped a cricket ball. It was such dangers, be they against the furious duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson, or the West Indian pace battery, that innovative, sometimes ridiculous counters, were developed. For all that, it is hard to doubt the claim that these saved lives.

Cricket, however, is not a pink gin affair of gentlemanly prowess, however depicted by those who do not follow it. The game can be gritty, drawn, and filled with attrition and threat. And such an environment is never going to be free of danger, whatever the equipment, whatever the cautionary injunction. On the field of battle, the lawmaker falls silent, and the combatants take guard.

For Australia, the sporting trauma of losing Phillip Hughes remains, a rude puncture of a salutary record. Hughes, whose hardiness and near celebrated immunity to on-field intimidation, earned him a string of stupendous performances. His 160 against South Africa on a daring Durban wicket remains titanic, an unorthodox confrontation of a dangerous bowling attack in tender years. Even better, it keeps company with the 115 made in his previous innings.

The issue of technique in combating the short-pitched delivery was never far away. When faced with the battering cherry, aesthetic considerations are discarded. The batsman duly improvised, ducking, weaving, and heaving.

As the distinguished former Australian cricket captain Greg Chappell suggested, Hughes’ own method resembled the Bradman counter against Bodyline, the infamous technique pioneered by the English side of Douglas Jardine in the Australian summer of 1932-3 to curb that famous run scoring machine. “There’s no right way or wrong way. Have a look at the scoreboard and tell me that he’s played badly.”

Australian cricketer Phil Hughes. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Daring improvisation is never perfect, always perched at some fictional failsafe level. Nor is the notion of physical immunity. Which brings us to the demise of Hughes at the Sydney Cricket Ground on November 25, 2014. His death became the centrepiece for an understandably retributive family, aghast and uncomprehending in losing him.

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He died after being felled by a ball, struck in the back of the neck, in a particularly heated Sheffield Shield match. Three calls for an ambulance had to be made before one arrived. That ambulance took an hour to reach the ground.

His death led to a coronial inquest, an inquiry that has done wonders to dredge up emotional distress from already deeply set family wounds. One obvious, irksome point for the Hughes family was the cool, yet accurate observation by counsel assisting the coroner, Michael Barnes, that such play involved risks, with its usual diet of bouncers and intimidating play.

As Kristina Stern SC advised, the coroner would do best to avoid such issues as on-field behaviour that might be deemed “sledging”, or the background that lead to the fatal contact. The risks were there, irrespective what the NSW cricket team had done, and “were not exacerbated by any such matters.”

For those wounded members, Hughes fending off a talented Protea attack in 2009 with precocious genius, holding his own, etching himself into history, were irrelevant. They had lost one of their own, and put it down to the bad behaviour of such figures as fast bowler Doug Bollinger, and Sean Abbott, who released the fatal delivery. Bollinger had supposedly uttered the words, “I’m going to kill you” which are really stock expressions in the unevolved lingua franca of fast bowlers.

Greg Melick SC, representing the Hughes family, countered that the short-pitched bowling deployed on the field that day “increased the risk of injury to Phillip” in being sustained and unruly. Adding to that sin was a belief that sledging had, in fact, occurred, a fact which “must cast serious doubts over other evidence.”

The problem in such cases of crisis is that eliminating every fundamental risk eliminates the flavour, and essence, of challenging sport. Nine balls in a row, or eight, or less, might well be disproportionate, and riles the guardians of good code conducts. But as to whether any such impediment might have prevented the death is impossible, and even futile, to say.

Instead, the regime of grief becomes the regime of control, imposing impediments on combative behaviour, trimming the gladiators by placing flowers on their weapons. Even worse, the weapons are removed altogether. The element of chance can never be eliminated.

Regulators off the pitch, and the participants on it, perennially feature traditional battles of control and resistance. Rarely do regulators strike the balance on risk and challenge. But the issue of Hughes’ death, while truly tragic, cannot dispense with the sense that he played, as all at the highest level do, with risk. No regulation, or state of equipment, could have dispensed with it in its entirety.

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Those who were accused of enhancing that risk played the predictable foil. Deeming them guilty in any sense would necessitate not so much a curbed form of cricket as an essentially defanged one. They, at the very least, should also be entitled to grieve with regret.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com