Thursday, 27 November 2014

Philip Hughes - a true cricketing tragedy

I never saw Philip Hughes play cricket.

By all accounts, he was a fine and exciting batsman, a typical attacking Aussie who loved taking apart the opposition’s bowling attack.  26 test matches and the youngest player to a score a century in each innings of one.  He was also a very popular man, both in his home country and in England where he played for three counties.  No-one seems to have a bad word to say about him.

So it is a true tragedy that at the age of 25 (so young!) his life has ended.  Struck at the base of the skull, where it joins the neck, trying a hook shot at the SCG, he collapsed and was rushed to a nearby hospital.  Despite major surgery he died two days later without waking up.  The artery in his neck was ruptured and blood seems to have poured into his brain.  The operation tried to relieve the pressure and repair the artery, but to no avail.  It was a complete freak – apparently a one in a billion chance, according to one report.

Such a sad loss, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his grieving family and friends.

It brought back many memories. 
I used to be a keen cricketer, back in the 1970s, before the advent of helmets and much other protective gear.  I only played for my local village team, for fun, and was no more than average even at that level.  I batted a bit, bowled a bit and kept wicket, and loved it.  One year I managed to win the club’s Single Wicket tournament, where individual players competed one-on-one against each other – 4 overs each (24 balls) to score as many runs as you could and get the other bloke out.  That was undoubtedly my finest hour, and to this day I can’t figure out how I managed to clean bowl the club’s best batsman for 6, the day after he had scored 80-odd in a match, in the semi -final (he went on to easily top the batting averages that season), nor to take 18 runs in the last over of the final off one of the best bowlers, to win the trophy.   One of the guys ran a book on the competition and somebody cleaned him out by putting ten quid on me at ridiculous odds before we started.

As I say, we had no real protection.  We had big old shin-pads to protect our legs, padded gloves to protect our hands (that’s if we were lucky – often the kit bag was short of both, and batting with one pad and no gloves was not uncommon) and a plastic cup to shove down the front of our underpants to protect our balls.  I shelled out about £30 to buy my own set of pads and gloves and a decent box to strap on and protect my manhood.  It was money well spent, and even after I stopped playing I kept it all, eventually donating it to another club about 30 years later, when I finally left England and accepted I would never need them again.

But even in those days and at that amateur level, the sort of ball that killed Hughes was common and an accepted tactic.  We quick(ish) bowlers used it to try and intimidate batsmen in exactly the same way as bowlers at the highest levels of the game do today (and frankly always have done).   If the pitch was a bit lively, we did it all the more, because often the ball would ping up high even when you weren’t aiming to do it, from a not very short length, and that made it even harder for batsmen to read and play it.   I was a comparative rarity, a left-arm quick bowler, so the angle I was delivering the ball at was a bit different and harder to bat against, at least at village green level, so I did pretty well.  That is to say, I hit a good few batsmen on the elbow or the glove or the ribs, and it usually did the trick – it softened ‘em up and gave me their wicket a few balls later.  It was part of the game, and we’d have a beer or two together in the pub or the clubhouse afterwards.

Because they would do exactly the same to me.  I had my fair share of cuts and bruises from the same kind of hits that I was dishing out.  I don’t remember breaking anything (either my bones or an opponent’s) nor inflicting any serious cuts, but I remember one kid at school taking a fast rising ball smack in the face, and his top lip was split from one side to the other and his nose broken.  It was nasty, especially for 14 year old him.  It didn’t stop him, though – once it had all healed up (maybe three weeks?) he was back playing again.   No fear – just like all kids, I suppose.

We got battered fielding as well.  Silly mid-on and silly mid-off – where you’re standing about three or four yards in front of the batsman and thus quite literally in the firing line – were the most dangerous positions to field, because you were totally unprotected – no gloves, no pads, no helmets, no box.  I got more bruises fielding there than I ever did batting.

But even now, years later, half a lifetime later in fact, I miss playing cricket more than I miss playing football – and that is saying something. 

So getting back to poor Phil Hughes.

He was just very unlucky.  Cricket is – and always has been – a dangerous sport: that ball is bloody hard.  The only things that have changed since my day are the increased use of protective gear, and the fact that today’s players are much fitter.  They are athletes now, gym-toned and strong, not the flabby joggers of my youth.  With that fitness comes strength, and agility, and speed both of thought and body.  Perhaps the helmets and body armour and so on have led to a touch of complacency, as these supremely fit cricketers perhaps feel more invincible now than at any time in history.  I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case.  But even so, they are I’m sure acutely aware of the dangers – just as we were – but their love of the sport transcends that.

No doubt there will now be calls to re-design helmets (and that will probably happen) to offer even more protection.  No doubt cricketers themselves will recognise this sad wake-up call and re-think their attitudes a bit, perhaps temper some of the more naked aggression that exists (but not for long – the pressure and rewards of winning will see to that).  I’m sure there will be calls to ban or at least severely limit short-pitched bowling.

I hope that last doesn’t happen, because cricket would not then be cricket.  Jonathan Agnew, the commentator and ex-England fast bowler, put it very eloquently on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show today.  That duel, he said, between the batsman and the aggressive fast bowler, the gladiatorial challenge that both participants absolutely love, is one of the elements that make the sport so challenging and enjoyable to watch (and play) and to dilute it in any way would lessen the sport and devalue it.

I’m sure that Phil Hughes, may he rest in peace, would share that view, and would not want change.

And a final thought.  Whilst cricket lovers rightly mourn the man, let’s not forget poor Sean Abbott, the 22 year old kid, who bowled the fateful ball.   How must he be feeling now, knowing that he has killed a man in this way?  No amount of counselling will ever change that fact.  That too is a terrible thing to have to bear.  Our thoughts and prayers should be with him, too.