Australia and much of the sporting world is reeling in deep shock and disbelief today at the death of Australian batsman Phillip Hughes after he was struck by a cricket ball to the head in Sydney two days ago.
We do not intend here to eulogise Phillip – others will do a better job of that, and his exciting batting play in many arena is all the evidence we need of his brilliant skills. He was also, by all accounts, and by his many interviews with the media, a fun, charming and engaging young man.
No sport is entirely without risks. A couple of weeks back we wrote with deep shock of the death of two young female Australian jockeys in the space of a week.
Cricket seems uniquely likely to cause injury to its participants. German Kaiser Wilhelm once presciently remarked that the British Empire was incapable of being defeated because its officer corps were trained for battle by making them stand in the middle of a mown field while small cannon balls were thrown at them. Indeed it is remarkable more people are not hurt playing the game.
The advent of helmets with wrap-around face guards or grills for those facing fast bowling, not to mention those fielding near the bat, has been a helpful and effective move. That this ball hit Hughes behind the helmet on the back of his head when a millimetre or so either way would simply have left him nursing a sore head and feeling a bit foolish is a bitter, bitter pill. We confidently expect to never see such an event again in our lifetime.
Yes, we should review the design of those helmets, just as we should review the turns on racetracks to make sure most horses – all horses, as far as we can arrange – get around them without slipping up at speed. Just as we have reviewed the safety features of Formula 1 cars so that serious injuries or death are almost banished from the sport, where they used to be almost weekly events, just as the auhorities work to make road cycling safer, and so on. We didn’t ban ocean racing after the Fastnet or Sydeny-to-Hobart disasters, and the crews for those exciting events still queue round the block to take part. What we did do was implement better communications, better rescue provision, and better weather alerts.
Our reason for writing tonight is simply to say again, woefully, that we must face the stark fact that there is always only so much we can do.
Sport will never be without risk and we cannot make cricket’s helmets so all-encompassing that they make batting impossible, especially against fast bowling. What happened to Phillip was dreadful bad luck and extraordinarily unlikely. Sometimes we just have to bite down hard and accept that life throws us all some ugly balls, now and again.
Those of us who love nothing more than the settle back on our couches or take our seat in the stands and watch elite athletes of all kinds do what they do best should remember that, and express our thanks for their courage. None of them can ever be entirely sure they will survive their career. Equally certainly, none of them would be put off competing by that doleful knowledge.
Phillip Hughes was a country lad with a ready smile. He started out playing cricket at 12 years old against adults, who he cheerfully bashed all over the grounds of small-town New South Wales. Raised in Macksville – a relaxed fishing and oyster-farming town centre of a rich rural district on low-lying land around the Nambucca River – and finished in Sydney grade cricket at Western Suburbs, where he, like his friend and Aussie captain Michael Clarke and fellow future Test player Mitchell Starc, were coached by Neil D’Costa, Hughes’s precocious talent would lead him to the modern cricket star’s cosmopolitan life.
He turned out not only for NSW and Australia but also the English counties Hampshire, Middlesex and Worcestershire, the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League, and for the Strikers and South Australia when he moved to Adelaide in 2012. He represented his country in all three formats and made new friends in each. Wherever he played, he was popular for his simple, light heart; there was no “side” to Phillip Hughes. He was just a bloody nice guy.
It would be nice if something could be done to memorialise his life and career by further supporting youth cricket, especially in country Australia. If the net result of the robbery of this young man’s promising life was with sad irony to unearth the next Philip Hughes then today’s loss might seem not quite so dreadfully, appalling, awfully hard to take.
Our deepest sympathies go out to Phillip’s family and friends, and the whole cricketing world.