by Bob Lethaby
When I heard the other day that Phillip Hughes, the Australian batsman, had been seriously injured by a bouncer, I was quite shocked but, naively it turns out, glad it seemed that he had got to hospital to be treated in time. When we hear of sports star badly injured, because of advancement in medical procedure, we just assume a predictable miracle. In this case, it appears that those who saw him hit the floor knew he was effectively dead on impact.
I didn’t know Phillip Hughes but as an armchair fan as well as a hapless village cricketer and Chairman of Oakley CC, I knew what he was about as an Aussie player, especially remembering how as a young man and the next big hope for Australian cricket, he was bounced and bullied out of the 2009 Ashes series by an England team led by Andrew Strauss.
Hughes has been a bit in and out of the Aussie side since then but was like any stereotypical tough and determined Aussie (at still just 25) re-establishing himself in the thoughts of Australian selectors and heading for the great things that were predicted of him as a youth player.
Now he is dead in unthinkable circumstances, courtesy of a strike to an artery that made him bleed so badly on the brain, saving him became a hopeless task. Where is the justice in that?
When I play cricket, I don’t wear a helmet or didn’t until one of our better players, Adam Robinson, forced me to do so at Longparish. Adam was rightly concerned that a slightly uneven pitch combined with my general ineptitude, would result in me top edging the ball into my face and causing a nasty injury and a Saturday night in Basingstoke A&E.
I took his advice but had I done so (top edged the ball) without a helmet on, the worst case albeit quite nasty scenario, would have been twin black eyes and a couple of missing teeth. Village cricketers don’t generally bowl fast enough to kill and most of the damage is done via a deflection rather than the raw pace of bowler. As a rule, a very good local cricketer will play at a standard that suits rather than spending a Saturday afternoon trying to injure middle aged blokes with fading eyesight.
Even at my age you accept that minor injury is part of the game but the reality is, the most likely injuries to be caused in village cricket are dislocated or broken fingers courtesy of mistimed catches on a chilly April day when making the misguided mistake of using what is known as ‘hard hands’.
The great and sad irony of the death of Phillip Hughes is that had he not been wearing a helmet he would probably still be alive. This is because as helmets have advanced, cricketers have been lulled into a false sense of security, thinking the worst that came happen is that a mistimed ‘pull shot’ will result in the ball will ricocheting off the helmet for four runs.
Batsmen will often take on a ‘pull shot’ from a bouncer safe in the knowledge that their helmet will keep them safe from injury but tragically, in this case, it resulted in a blow to the neck as Hughes turned away. If you look at old videos of the West Indies when they were bouncing their way to being the best in the world, players without helmets moved away, ducked and virtually ran from 90 mph bouncers. When the helmet came to play, it levelled the playing field and allowed batmen to take on the short ball in relative safety. The pull shot became a thrilling part of he batsman’s counter-attack.
So what now for Sean Abbott, the bowler who, while entirely innocent, has to live with the consequences of ‘pitching one in short’? How does he recover mentally? How does a 22 year old boy trying to make his mark in game rebuild his life? How does he ever bowl a cricket ball again and how do the players on the field at the SCG bring themselves to carry on?
And what now for cricket and the fearsome enjoyment of watching an angry bowler trying to intimidate a stoical and belligerent batsman?
Those who study the game will remember the drama of the West Indies bowlers peppering an ageing but stubborn Brian Close. They will remember Alan Donald, with steam coming out of his ears in a brutal session versus Michael Atherton, and they will remember the Ashes in 2005, when Steve Harmison rattled the helmet of Aussie captain, Ricky Ponting, drawing blood from his cheek as the partisan English crowd roared with approval, sensing at last, an end to Australian dominance that had lasted 20 long years.
The Ashes 2005 was the reason my own son took up playing cricket and he watched on as an avid follower as recently as last winter, when the maverick and often wayward Australian paceman, Mitchell Johnson, battered England into submission with ferocious short bowling accompanied with threats to remove heads and break limbs. What drew my son and other kids to the game was the sheer ferocity of it at international level, the angry, glaring bowler sending stumps cartwheeling down the ground and the big batsmen like Flintoff and Pietersen battering a 90 mph ball back over the bowlers head and into the pavilion.
Sledging, snarling, teasing and physical threats were all part of what made cricket box office, so what is going to happen now during the Ashes series in 2015? Who would dare bowl an intimidating bouncer through fear of injuring or even killing someone and as a consequence, having to go through the private hell that Sean Abbott doesn’t deserve but can’t avoid. I really don’t know where cricket can go from here, maybe time will be the great healer but seriously wonder if in that freak moment, the game changed forever.
For us village idiots attempting to play the game, nothing much will change, because there is not, at our level, the capability to inflict anything more than a few bruises, a broken finger or a bloody nose. However, at international level, all has changed, because any aggressive attempts at intimidation will be seen as morally indecent, insensitive and disrespectful to the family of Phil Hughes.
The consequences of this tragedy are so far reaching it is currently beyond comprehension, because, the draw of the game of cricket, is the one on one battles that feature the type of aggression and intimidation which will no longer be deemed acceptable.
I guess for now, all that the community of cricket can do, from picturesque villages of Hampshire, right through to top of the international game, is to offer condolences to the family of a fine young cricketer and send support to another who through no fault of his own, feels like his life is in tatters at the age of 22.
RIP Phil Hughes and best wishes to Sean Abbott who will need all the emotional and psychological support he can get. Cricket as a whole, has to find some way of moving forward.
This article was originally published in Bob’s blog which you can check out here