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The tragedy of Phil Hughes is no one's fault

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Phillip_Hughes_Australia_cricket_accidentNovember 25th, 2014, is a date burned into our collective memory. The tragedy of Phillip Hughes threw into sharp focus the dangers of a sport built on the ebb and flow of bat against ball and reminded us all of the perspective we must keep in what, after all, is only a game. The worldwide outpouring of grief and sympathy for those mourning the loss of a beloved son, brother and friend - as well as a wonderful cricketer - was accompanied in those early days by a heartfelt desire to learn from what had happened, to make the professional game a safer, and perhaps a kinder place.

What happened to Hughes three days before his twenty-sixth birthday was tragic in the truest sense of the word. His death was inevitable from the moment he was struck on the neck by that Sean Abbott bouncer: the blow causing such a severe arterial injury that it could not have been treated or, even with the re-designed helmets that have since become available, prevented.

 

It was a freak accident – horrific, appalling, desperately sad, but an accident still. It was the first of its kind involving a cricket ball. It could not have been foreseen.

There has since been much discussion about how to make the game safer. The opening exchanges in the Coroner’s court in Sydney, however, suggested that it is instead the game itself and, specifically, the way it was played that fateful summer afternoon which is under the microscope.

The Hughes family has raised concerns about the nature of the bowling he was subjected to that day, as well as over comments that were allegedly directed to him during the game. The opening day of the inquest saw New South Wales Blues skipper Brad Haddin and fast bowler Doug Bollinger placed in the spotlight.

Kristina Sterns, counsel for the coroner, set out the line of enquiry.

"Concerns have been raised in relation to the number of short balls that were delivered by the pace bowlers to Phillip Hughes and as to tactics during the afternoon session that day,” she said.

"In particular, concern has been expressed that the NSW team may have been bowling short at Phillip Hughes for a good majority of the time after lunch in order to restrict the run rate and get him out. (Questions have also been raised about) whether the umpires should have taken steps to prevent this."

Those avenues were explored. Haddin was asked to explain his tactical discussions with then NSW coach Trevor Bayliss during the lunch interval and the reasoning behind the field he subsequently set for Hughes as the game restarted. Haddin stated that there were no specific plans to bowl short at Hughes and that the fielding positions were set to stall the run rate.

A statement from David Warner, a close friend of Hughes who was also on the field for NSW that day, elaborated further:

"The team had developed a plan of how to get Phil out," he said. "Basically it was to bowl at or over leg stump and get Phil moving backwards instead of forwards."

 

Doug Bollinger was questioned over alleged sledging and was forced to deny the specific allegation that he had said to Hughes “I am going to kill you.” When questioned on the second day of the hearing, Tom Cooper, Hughes’ South Australia team-mate and batting partner when he was struck, supported Bollinger, saying that he had heard no such comment.

"If he had said that I would have remembered it," said Cooper. "I am confident it didn't happen."

Cooper also answered questions relating to NSW’s bowling tactics that day. He agreed that Hughes had been targeted by short-pitched deliveries, but said that when the two had discussed it at the crease his partner was unconcerned with what was a familiar tactic often employed to exert pressure on the batsman.  

"He handled it with relative ease. There (were) no worries,” said Cooper.

"I guess he was targeted, but I wouldn't say it was in an ungentlemanly way. The tactic was used against him but it wasn't for any other reason than to stop the run rate."

Match umpire Mike Graham-Smith saw no reason to step in as he did not regard the bowling as unfair or dangerous. When asked by Greg Melick SC, representing the Hughes family, whether the fact that another player had been hit on the head earlier that day should have influenced the umpire's decision to allow short-pitched bowling to continue, Graham-Smith replied in the negative.

International umpire Simon Taufel, asked to review the match, also agreed that there were no grounds to suggest that the umpires should have intervened.

I have read the reports of the proceedings thus far with genuine sadness. The search to apportion blame, to find ‘the reason’, is as natural as it is understandable to a family who have been through such unimaginable trauma. But it appears that until its tragic conclusion, there was nothing unusual on that November afternoon.

NSW had discussed a plan to dismiss Hughes, but this would be the case for any frontline player, particularly one of Hughes’ experience, quality and capability. Short-pitched bowling was involved, but the fact that spinner Nathan Lyon was operating in tandem with Abbott indicates that there was no concerted plan to bombard the batsmen with excessive bouncers.

When events on the sports field are re-interpreted through the analytical gaze of the courtroom, we enter uneasy territory. With hindsight, the actions of each player, each tactical move and each throwaway remark takes on a new –and in the eyes of the law potentially sinister– significance. But what has been revealed thus far has been a game of cricket, nothing more and nothing less. Its terrible conclusion is the only thing that separates it from any number of other games played in any number of leagues, districts and countries across the globe.

In any sport where an element of risk is present, there will be occasions when the worst will happen. When it does, we must look for the opportunity to minimise the chance of the incident repeating itself. Sometimes, though, that is impossible without altering the very fabric of the game itself. Cricket will always be about bat and ball and the tactics that play in counterpoint to that fundamental relationship.

The focus of the players that day was on winning a game of cricket. Not by any foul means, but by employing those same tried-and-tested tactics used by every captain of every fielding side, the world over.

The horrendous accident that befell Phillip Hughes was something that no-one could have anticipated. Fate intervened to turn an ordinary day into a terrible one. Truly tragic as that was, though, it is nobody’s fault.

 

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Jake Perry is a freelance cricket writer. He writes regularly on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotl...

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