Eoin Sheehan analyses the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of cricket player Phil Hughes.
Where to start with the tragic death of Phil Hughes?
Hughes’ 26th birthday would have been this weekend. According to friend and broadcaster Alan Jones, Hughes told him he hoped to mark his birthday with a century for his state side South Australia. A big score would probably have forced the selectors to include him in the Australia side for the First Test against India due to start in Brisbane next Friday.
For a man so used to being half-in, half-out of the national side a return to the Test stage was a deeply cherished ambition.
Instead there will be no fairy-tale hundred, there will be no Test recall and there may not even be a First Test. What significance has international cricket matches when compared to the loss of such a young life?
The death of Hughes has sparked outpourings of public grief not only in Australia but across the cricketing world. Day 2 of the Test between Pakistan and New Zealand at Sharjah was suspended as players digested the awful news. Minutes of silence were held before club games in Lahore and Karachi. In the UK former England Captains featured on almost every news bulletin throughout the day to express their shock and sadness.
One word seemed to capture the general feeling; numb.
Hughes was batting for his adopted state, South Australia, against his home state of New South Wales. Most of the NSW players on the ground were close friends of his and many of them – such as Brad Haddin, David Warner, Mitchell Starc and Shane Watson – had played in national sides with Hughes. Warner had been his opening partner on a number of occasions at Test level and the two were close friends. When Hughes first collapsed Warner was one of the first people at his side to support him and one of the first to start gesturing frantically for help.
Images of the stricken Warner being almost carried from the hospital following this morning’s announcement have provided some of the most harrowing pictures of this awful day. It was left to the Australian national skipper, Michael Clarke, to read a statement from the Hughes family expressing their grief. For a man who many considered almost a surrogate older brother to Hughes and who must have been as shaken as any by the whole affair, Clarke conducted himself remarkably well. Whether he and the other Australian players due to run out against India next week have any stomach for cricket is a moot point.
The shock at Hughes’ death has been magnified by the perception that cricket is a very safe game. Batsmen today are swathed in protective gear and helmets are a given at almost any level when facing a fast bowler. Common injuries might include broken fingers, bruising from being hit by a ball or, at the extreme end of the sale, maybe a broken rib. But for a player to die from an injury sustained on the field? How could such a thing happen?
The simple answer is that the injury Hughes suffered was almost a total freak. At the press conference announcing his passing the two doctors who were most closely involved in his treatment were at pains to stress how unusual such an injury was.
“The condition is incredibly rare.” said Australian team doctor Peter Brukner. “It’s called vertebral artery dissection leading to subarachnoid haemorrhage, if you look in the literature there are only about 100 cases ever reported.
“Effectively the impact compressed the artery in Hughes neck, severing it and causing a brain haemorrhage. Surgery to relieve pressure on the brain ultimately proved futile.
The head of trauma at St Vincent’s Hospital, Doctor Tony Grabs, went on to describe the injury as “very rare, very freakish”, saying such a condition had never been treated at the hospital before.
Hughes was hit in the neck, not as has been and continues to be incorrectly repeated in some media outlets, in the head. No helmet currently in existence would have protected that area from damage. In the relatively short time since his death there have been the inevitable calls to tighten up the rules on bowling short pitched deliveries or to improve the quality of helmets players use.
The helmet argument is a point perhaps worth consideration, although the problem of protecting the neck while not impairing the batsman’s freedom of movement is a problem helmet manufacturers will have to overcome. As for short pitched deliveries there are already limits on the number of short balls a bowler can deliver in a certain space of time, with umpires entitled to caution players who are over-stepping the limit.
Further reducing the number of balls that can be bowled short will only further tip the balance in favour of batsman in their contest with the bowler. The ‘bouncer’ is an important part of a bowler’s arsenal and attempts to further restrict its use will do nothing to make cricket more entertaining or to limit serious injuries.
And what of the bowler in this case? One of the common features of the many tributes paid to Hughes has been the speed with which many have asked for Sean Abbott to be kept in people’s thoughts. Abbott was merely doing what he was supposed to do; namely, attempting to get a well-established batsman out. Nobody in viewing the awful footage of Hughes’s final moments could ascribe any blame to the bowler. He is left now to contemplate his role in the tragedy and to decide where he goes from here.
Comparisons will be drawn with Peter Lever who, in the pre-helmet 1970’s, almost killed New Zealand’s Ewen Chatfield with a bouncer that hit him in the head. Lever later said he had to be talked out of retiring from cricket there and then. For Abbott it can only be hoped that, with support from his family and the cricket community, he will continue to play the game that he and Hughes so loved.
Hauntingly, the last tweet Abbott posted before the game against South Australia wished for good weather.
— Sean Abbott (@seanabbott77) November 24, 2014
If only the weather Gods had denied Abbott’s request and sent rain clouds over the SCG this awful incident would never have happened.
One of the saddest features of this tragedy is the fact that, had Hughes not been hit, he would have been in line to make his return to the International stage. Mark Waugh, the Australian selector who was present at the ground when the incident took place, confirmed to FOX Sports that Hughes would have been picked for the side to face India. His form in state cricket had done enough to impress the selectors and his half century on the day of the incident confirmed to Waugh and his fellow judges that he was ready to make his return. That cherished place in the Test team was his.
Hughes never made it to his century and he will never take the field again. He will instead remain, forever, 63 not out.
Eoin Sheehan, Pundit Arena.