By Ollie Godden
At the tender age of just 25, the young Australian Phil Hughes was fast becoming an established name on the international cricket circuit. He had accumulated over 9,000 runs in First Class cricket, averaging 46.5. These statistics had seen him rewarded with caps in 26 tests and 25 One Day Internationals for his country, an impressive record for a young man who had an exciting career ahead of him, with the nickname of ‘Little Don’, a nod to Australia’s greatest ever batsman, Don Bradman.
However, on 25th November 2014, whilst batting for South Australia, a short ball from New South Wales’ Sean Abbott saw him play his hook shot too early, miss the ball and take a blow to his neck, just below his left ear, in an area unprotected by his helmet. A brain hemorrhage was the result and Hughes tragically passed away two days later.
Several painful months followed for the Australian cricketing family, with close friend and Australian captain Michael Clarke caught in the media onslaught. An emotional announcement at a press conference on behalf his team mates, followed by an equally moving eulogy at his funeral, was a clear demonstration of the affection in which Hughes was held by all who knew him.
Fast forward two years, and last week an inquest was held in New South Wales, the state in which “Hughesy” grew up and began his cricketing career. Many of the players who were directly involved on that ill-fated day were called to give testimonies, called to reveal exactly what was said and exactly what was done, in order to shed light on how and why the accident occurred, and how it could have been avoided. But for what purpose?
The inquest, in essence, is a necessary evil; but unfortunately not in equal measures. Necessary because under New South Wales law, an inquest must be held to examine any sudden, violent or unexpected death. But more so evil because little good has come from it.
What happened that fateful day was a tragedy; one of the greatest in sporting history, but by no means did the bowler Abbot start his run up with intent to kill an opponent. It is strange to request innocent players to recall such intimate details of an accidental, albeit painful, event, in the hope they reveal some sort of focus or intent to kill.
Coroner Michael Barnes stated at the start of the inquest that the aim was to see if the accident could have been avoided, and it was revealed that the sad and simple answer is no. Many extremely unfortunate variables came together to cause this unique tragedy. Even looking retrospectively, there isn’t a piece of headgear which could have protected Hughes while still allowing him the range of movement required to bat.
Moreover, a quicker response from emergency services would have been futile, with Professor Brian Owler, a neurosurgeon and the former head of the Australian Medical Association, having reviewed the injury that led to Hughes’s death, as well as the postmortem results, concluding: “No intervention, no matter how early, could have been performed to avoid his death.”.
However, the issue in hand is that inquest needed only to study this area of the accident, but instead it decided to also reopen the scars of the players. The assertion that there had been “unsportsmanlike behavior” was debated at the inquest by former Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and Abbot, and by Hughes’s own batting partner Tom Cooper. Even if the words “I’m going to kill you” were uttered by Abbott’s fellow fast bowler Doug Bollinger, as was suggested, it is inconceivable to consider this a genuine threat. This is the sport of cricket, where sledging is part and parcel of the psychological battle; to assert that these comments, even if made, were meant with any intent other than to simply unsettle the batsmen is cruel on these innocent players.
This same argument has been made by Australian great Steve Waugh. Talking to Daily Mail Australia, Waugh spoke of his anguish at the directed pressure towards the players during the inquest:
“I don’t think the players were prepared for that. I think that everybody assumed that the inquest was about if there were enough safety precautions in place – can we learn from it; can we make it potentially avoidable in the future.
I don’t think it was ever meant to delve into what was actually going on out in the field because cricket since the year dot has been played with a lot of spirit and attitude. There’s always talk out in the middle. There has always been short-pitched bowling.
I think it was uncomfortable and awkward to watch the players to be put in that situation.”
Another proclamation made by the coronor’s report (and by Hughes’ own father Greg in an undated letter) was the apparent excess of short balls bowled to Phil Hughes, a move which “increased the risk of an injury,” according to the Greg Melick, the counsel for Hughes’s family. That short bowling carries more risk is obviously true. Statistically, the bouncer is more likely to strike the batsmen than a full pitched delivery. But if a weakness had been spotted in Hughes’s batting armory, as was apparently the case, it is unreasonable to expect the opposing team to not exploit it. One should keep in mind that, fewer than 12 months before Hughes died, Mitchell Johnson had been lauded as a national hero in Australia for his brutally fast and ferocious short-pitched bowling which decimated England during the Ashes.
After the ordeal of the inquest, Sean Abbot was keen to express his desire to continue in his beloved game, despite the tragedy and a proposal that bouncers could be omitted from the game.
“I felt the game that day was being played within the laws and spirit of cricket.
I know there has been a suggestion that the laws of the game be changed so that bouncers should not be bowled, but the same cricket ball will be hit and flying around whether bouncers are bowled or not.”
Impressive resolve from a man no doubt distraught by the incident.
With the inquest now over, there is no doubt that we should still mourn for one of cricket’s brightest prospects, but let’s not place blame on the individuals who were on the field of the SCG that day, doing the same job they loved just as much as the “Little Don”, a love which has now been somewhat tainted by their experience in this sadly historic event.
Image: Wikipedia Commons