Friday, 28 November 2014

Phillip Hughes: a tragedy in many parts

"He died doing what he loved."

It's funny how often you hear that, as if in some way it mitigates the tragedy of an untimely, unforeseen, senseless death. Surely it only makes the thing more tragic? If someone died doing something they hated then at least there would be mitigation in them not having to do it any more. So we must reject that idea. Phillip Hughes' death is an unmitigated tragedy. And it is a tragedy on many levels.

There is the level on which we can all relate. The human one. This was after all a life cut off in its prime. It has left families and friends distraught, a part of themselves lost forever. And in the cruel warping of nature's cycle of life it has left parents to bury their own child. Amongst all the inevitable talk and speculation, of which I am now going to add, we should never let this be forgotten.

There is a particular tragedy in the premature deaths of sports people. They are not usually our friends, nor even acquaintances but as fans we can develop, well fanatical attachments. Often we have watched them or noted their names from a young age, fifteen or sixteen, sometimes younger. There is something of the talent scout in all of us, we like to talk about the young lad we saw in the nets when he was eleven, the next Sachin we confidently and erroneously predict. And once we have identified them we like to stick with them, see where the story leads, smugly celebrating their successes and cursing their inevitable failures. We don't know whether they will make it but now we have invested in their lives we want to see how the story ends. But for Phil Hughes we never shall. And it is particularly sad because his story was a fascinating one. Brought up in a small, rural town, he batted as you might expect - with freedom, freshness and scant regard for urban convention. And then it became a bit of a struggle; the city slickers worked him out, and he disappeared back into the crowd. But he wouldn't go away, and significantly, many good judges continued to believe in him. Whether they were right or not we will now never know. We have been denied the end of the story and that's not supposed to happen. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, it is hard not to imagine him looking down on us, aghast, that rather than proving his critics wrong, he had, in his final moments, added grist to their mill. It was a cruel and undeserved end.

And then there is the wider tragedy. I have a sense that cricket has finally, truly lost its innocence. Let's be honest we all thought this had happened a long time ago - match fixing (18th century style), Bodyline, World Series Cricket, sledging, match fixing (21st century style), IPL cheerleaders - but we were wrong, these were just trivial events, situations to be managed or glossed over. What's that they say when people start taking sport too seriously? "Calm down, nobody died". Well they were right. They were right then and they are right now. Someone has died and we can't calm down and we shouldn't. As much as we want too, we can't just brush this under the carpet and carry on as before. It's the last thing we want to do but we have to face up to this.

In some sports such as motorsport or boxing danger is front and centre, it is integral. In cricket it is no more than incidental. It's a hard game sure, requiring courage every bit as much as skill to succeed, but dangerous? It's not really a word we use is it? And yet we should, at least we shouldn't shy away from it. You know what might be the strangest aspect of this horrible incident? That when it comes to the game we love, suddenly it looks as if our fussing mums knew the truth better than we did. If they could see it, why couldn't we?

In recent years we have seen more and more Test cricketers get hit on the head and yet not one of us worried. They rubbed their heads, sometimes they changed their helmet, at worst they got a broken nose. Injuries, they're part of sport aren't they? He's got a helmet on, he'll be fine. We were blind, wilfully blind. We trusted in these helmets as if they were lucky totems - beyond all rational reason. We saw the consequences - the hits, the cuts and bruises, the momentary losses of equilibrium but we didn't see, or we didn't want to see the danger. And when I say we, I don't just mean "us" the spectators, the supporters, the commentators, I mean "them" too, the players, especially the players. They thought they were indestructible. It's not that they don't know how to avoid these deliveries, it's not that they aren't taught properly, they are. They know they should get their head inside or outside the line or under the ball, but they don't or they didn't know why. They were blind, wilfully blind. And it has cost Phil Hughes his life. His blindness, all our blindness. But we can claim blindness no longer.

It is worth reiterating, that this wasn't just any old cricketer, this was Phil Hughes. He was a Test match batsman. This wasn't a club match, this wasn't a weekend grade cricketer, this wasn't even a hapless tailender pummelled mercilessly from around the wicket. Not getting hit by a cricket ball was Phil Hughes' job and of the 7 billion or so people on this planet he was considered one of the very best at it. And he was killed. He was killed.

I don't know how this will change cricket, I just know that it will. It is of course right to urge against rushes to judgment, although where the ICC is concerned this is hardly a real concern. Can we make helmets safer? Of course we can. Can we make helmets safer to the point where there is no significant risk of this happening again? Probably. But can we make helmets safer to the point where there is no significant risk of this happening against whilst at the same time ensuring that that batsman retain the same freedom of movement and sensory perception? The answer is probably not and if this is the case then some tough decisions will have to be made and we may not like them.

One place where the word "dangerous" does actually appear is in  Law 42.6 (a)(1). It states:

(a) Bowling of fast short pitched balls

(i) The bowling of fast short pitched balls is dangerous and unfair if the bowler’s end umpire considers that by their repetition and taking into account their length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on the striker irrespective of the protective equipment he may be wearing. The relative skill of the striker shall be taken into consideration.

From a legal standpoint I have always found this a strangely worded clause. It  implies that the frequency of the short pitched bowling should be taken into account in considering danger. Why? Do we wait for a bowler to deliver a third or a fourth beamer before considering the batsman to be in danger? And conversely if the delivery is designed to gain the batsman's wicket why should the bowler be limited in such a way. 

Of course my mistake is to read this as a legal clause, it is not. It is a deliberately broad and inexactly worded guideline designed to give umpires a degree of authority in managing the game. A rough translation would be that "bowlers do not have carte blanche to bowl as many short balls as they wish at batsmen of limited ability". We can imply no stronger message than that.

The problem is that the cat is now out of the bag. We now know what "dangerous" means, it means potentially fatal. And as such this clause can no longer be taken so lightly. We can wish that the law of the land stops at the touchline or the boundary edge but increasingly it does not. How will this affect umpires? Do they not owe a duty of care to each and every player, just as a rugby referee does? What about the captain? These are questions we don't want to hear, but we cannot avoid them. Putting our heads in the sand, whether wearing helmets or not, is no longer an option.

We should also not forget one more tragedy, one more victim. A living one. Mike Atherton wrote on Tuesday about Peter Lever's struggles after nearly killing Ewan Chatfield. It seems hard to imagine Sean Abbott playing again this season, and you have to wonder whether he will ever play again. Whilst we can and should honour and remember Phil Hughes, Sean Abbott needs our support.

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