It is hard to imagine what Phillip Hughes’ family have gone through this past week as the inquest into the former Test cricketer’s death was carried out in Sydney.
Hughes’s passing away on the cricket field following a blow to the head in November 2014 was public enough, but to have it all played out again in the public so long after the event must be awful. Was it therefore any surprise that the family walked out of the court at what must have been an extremely traumatic week.
The New South Wales state coroner Michael Barnes has been given the task of investigating whether the nature of play contributed to the risk for the former Australia Test batsman. He is also looking at the speed of response by stadium and cricket officials and the ambulance service, and whether new guidelines on safety equipment need to be introduced to the sport.
They say that hindsight is perfect vision, and Greg Melick SC, representing the Hughes family criticised the players for repeatedly answering many questions by saying ‘no recollection’ or ‘I can’t recall’. Some may feel this was warranted criticism, but there is a very strong possibility that these players who were called as witnesses, some who were Test team mates and many former state team mates, have shut that traumatic day and the events before and after the ball struck Hughes out of their minds. Undoubtedly they too will have suffered since that fateful game. Sure their suffering is very different to that of Hughes family, but who are we, or the law to judge what they have been through.
‘At the end of the day, there was a plan, there was sledging, and short-pitched balls were bowled at Phillip Hughes, which increased the risk of an injury,’ Mr Melick is quoted as saying.’Nine consecutive short-pitched balls from the one bowler aimed at leg stump or the body of the batsman was going too far.’
He may have a point.
Yet right or not, this was sport being played at the highest level. Phillip Hughes was playing for South Australia against New South Wales a team he had previously played for, against players who having trained with him and played alongside him would have been more aware of any chinks in his batting armour than most.
Sadly in competitive sport and in situations where players are playing against former team mates, the ‘sledging’ or ‘banter’ is ratcheted up a notch. That is sadly the way of modern sport, where every player tries to gain the smallest of advantages. Australia are said to have been the first and greatest exponents of the sledge so it was inevitable in this match. Did it go to far? Had the game played out to its conclusion without any incident this question would not have been asked.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s when the West Indies had a pace attack that was the envy of every Test cricket playing nation, they frequently used bouncers to unsettle or intimidate a batsman, and this was at a time when much of the protective gear that is worn today did not exist. In fact the documentary “Fire in Babylon” tells how it was the aggression towards the West Indian side in Australia that created the formidable side that remained unbeaten in 15 test series.
In 1975 the late Brian Close was recalled to try and face down the West Indies attack in England. He did so bravely taking blows to the body and swaying out of the way of head high balls. His autobiography was later called “I Don’t Bruise Easily.” The most protection he had was a thigh pad and a box, apart from his normal cricket attire.
In the early 1980’s helmets started to come into the game and by 1991 the International Cricket Council stepped in to try and limit the intimidation. They introduced a “one bouncer per batsman per over” rule. It was a rule that was not well received by players and umpires. English umpire Dickie Bird described it as “farcical.” He felt the issue of intimidation should be left to the Umpires to determine.
In 1994 the ICC changed the rule to two bouncers per over. In 2001 they reverted again to one bouncer per over.
In 2012 the ICC increased the number of bouncers that could be bowled during a One Day International to two, while the number of bouncers per over allowed in T20s was kept to one.
So the powers that be looked to limit intimidation with the ball. The umpire has always had the power to limit the verbal intimidation. Yet there is one area that the sport of cricket seems to fail to want to look at, despite the warning signs having been there a long time before Hughes’s unfortunate passing.
That is the issue of batting technique. Before the dawn of helmets it was crucial at all levels that cricket was played that batsman never take their eye off the ball. That was why sight screens were so important, they were an aid to the batsman being able to keep his eye on the ball. Yet how many grounds in Australia fail to have a sight screen behind the bowlers arm?
In the pre-helmet days batsman were taught to watch the ball and duck under a bouncer or sway out of its line. Equally important was the batsman’s position when trying to play a hook shot to a short pitched ball. The rule of thumb being that the batsman should always be inside the line of the ball.
Since helmets were introduced these rules have been ignored by many cricketers across the globe. The helmet has had the same effect as ABS breaking and air bags in cars, it has made the young player feel invincible should he get hit on the head. So suddenly technique is not as important as it previously was.
One statistic that would make very interesting reading would be to see how many of the top class cricketers who have been hit on the helmet in the last ten years have been hit turning their head away, and therefore taking their eyes off the ball. Too often this has been the case, and confirms that the old rule of keeping your eye on the ball and swaying or ducking has been cast aside.
If cricket is serious about making sure that no other family has to go through what the Hughes family has gone through, by all means improve the protective gear worn by players, but if you truly want to protect them make sure that they have the technique to protect themselves. It is crucial that before learning to slash a ball to all parts of the ground they learn not only how to defend their wicket but how to defend themselves.