Few things in life stir up the emotion, sadness and support we have come to witness over the past week. Early last week, the former Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes was struck on the top of the neck by a cricket ball whilst batting during a Sheffield Shield match.
Hughes was playing for South Australia and was on 63 not out when he attempted to play a short-pitched ball delivered by the New South Wales bowler Sean Abbott. The impact pierced his vertebral artery, resulting in massive bleeding in his brain. After spending two days in an induced coma in hospital, Hughes sadly lost his battle and passed away.
This incident has resulted in a reaction similar to the one seen when the former Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna tragically lost his life in 1994 during an accident whilst leading the San Marino Grand Prix. It has not only impacted the cricketing world, but has also touched the hearts and minds of individuals and groups outside of the game.
Part of this is because of Hughes’ nature as a sportsman – hard-working, humble, kind, soft-spoken. They are a few qualities that many of us would relate to that he has been described to have possessed. The other part is the sheer uniqueness of the injury he suffered and the fact that, as with Senna, it unfortunately cost him his life.
Such incidents are few and far between in cricket. Something similar happened in 1988 when the former West Indian all-round cricketer Philip Simmons was struck on the head by a ball delivered from the former England cricketer David Lawrence. The impact of the hit caused Simmons’ heart to stop beating and he required emergency surgery from which he thankfully made a full recovery.
At a few days shy of what would have been his 26th birthday, it is quite clear that Hughes had a promising future to look forward to. It is also quite clear that the 22-year-old Abbott still has a bright future if he chooses to carry on playing cricket. No blame is of course attached to him for what happened. He was simply doing his job – attempting to unsettle a batsman as a way to ultimately get them out.
However, the impact this would have on any cricketer is immense, let alone the person that bowled the ill-fated delivery. Unlike with Lawrence, who was able to speak to Simmons and see him make a full recovery, Abbott will unfortunately not get that chance. I know that if I was in Abbott’s shoes, I would never want to touch a cricket ball again. Whatever he chooses to do, I am sure he will have all the support and backing he requires.
Amongst the mourning and memories, there are some serious questions that need to be addressed collectively by the cricketing world. One is of course the future of the short-pitched ball, commonly referred to as the bouncer.
The bouncer came to prominence in the early 1930s during what was referred to as the Bodyline Series. At this time, Australia were dominating international cricket, mostly because of the heroics of their former batsman Donald Bradman.
During the 1932-1933 Ashes series between England and Australia, England devised a tactic to counter Bradman’s skills. The tactic, also known as fast leg theory bowling, involved bowling fast, short balls targeted at the batsman’s upper chest and head and setting a leg-side dominant field to catch any deflections of the bat or gloves.
Not only did the tactic succeed in controlling the Australian batsmen, but it also injured a number of them. Remarkably, at a time when head protection was not yet part of the game, nothing as serious as what happened to Hughes or Simmons ever occurred.
Even though this tactic was within the laws of the game, its so-called success created considerable ill feeling between the two cricketing powerhouses, leading to an outcry from the Australian’s accusing the English of not playing within the spirit of the game. Eventually, laws were introduced to prevent the tactic. Crucially, there are now limits to the number of bouncers that can be bowled per over in all formats of the game.
Over the years, cricket has transformed to what most will classify as a batsman-friendly game. Completely eradicating the bouncer will only enhance the transformation. At present, the game is also probably the safest it as ever been.
Change in mentality
However, every player, at least in this generation, at any level will now always have something in the back of their mind reminding them about what happened to Hughes. The next time Australian bowler Mitchell Johnson, known for his sharp, short-pitched bowling, takes to the field, bowling short will not be as natural as it was.
Batsmen that regularly enjoy taking on the short ball and scoring runs of it, in the same way, will tend to leave more deliveries. Therefore, even if the bouncer is not legally removed from the game, most players will naturally stay away from it.
The introduction of head and upper body protection has absolutely made the game safer. Hughes was however hit on the top of his neck, his head being turned away from the ball. There would have been no protection on that part. Moving forward, there could be subsequent options introduced to change the design of modern helmets, but this may inhibit head movements which are important in batting.
Very few sports, if any, can guarantee the safety of players. We tend to idolise sportsmen and women because of this. We see them as being invincible, almost immortal in their respective arenas.
This is why when a sporting individual passes away as a direct result of a sporting injury, there is incredible shock and disbelief. It is as if the impossible has occurred and we are cruelly reminded of the dangers they face on a daily basis.
For Hughes, his time is unfortunately up. Cricket and Australia have lost a sporting son. Forever will he remain 63 not out.
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