An international cricket match will be played here on Saturday. There is not much stomach for it. The second one-day international between Sri Lanka and England is proceeding because life and cricket have to go on. If not, it is reluctantly accepted, there really is little point.
It was a near thing. Discussions took place about whether the match should go ahead as planned, in the wake of the death of Phillip Hughes after being hit by a bouncer four days ago. The tragedy has deeply affected both teams, and their preparations for the World Cup, around which this long series centres, suddenly do not seem important any more. Yet in a way, they are.
To suggest that the players are traumatised may be putting it too strongly. But they are sick to the pit of their being, as are the millions who follow and play cricket, unable to comprehend what happened and why, although they know only too well the dangers of facing a hard ball being propelled at speeds approaching – sometimes beyond – 90mph.
Alastair Cook, the England captain, would be the first to admit that his natural home is not in front of a flotilla of notebooks, a legion of microphones and a phalanx of cameras. Yet he appeared on Friday at the Premadasa Stadium, knowing what was coming, and in a respectful, measured way paid homage to Phillip Hughes and to the game he loved.
It was not a magnificent piece of oratory but it was Cook trying nobly to articulate the meaning for us all of this single, terrible accident and the death of a young batsman who had done much but was on the cusp of doing much, much more. Even as he spoke cricketers around the world were putting out their bats, sometimes with a cap on top, in their front gardens, or outside their front door, or perched in a window, or leaning against stumps at their clubs. It was an oddly powerful gesture: a colony of bats spoke more eloquently than a sea of flowers.
Phillip Hughes: Career in pictures
Phillip Hughes: Career in pictures
1/7 Phil Hughes
Hughes burst onto the international scene by scoring 115 and 160 against South Africa in just his second Test
2/7 Phil Hughes
Hughes, playing here in a tour match against Sussex, is well known to English fans after spells with Hampshire, Middlesex and Worcestershire
3/7 Phil Hughes
In last summer's Ashes series Hughes scored 81* at Trent Bridge as part of a 10th wicket partnership of 163 with the debutant Ashton Agar
4/7 Phil Hughes
Hughes's most recent Test outing was the Lords test of the 2013 Ashes series
5/7 Phil Hughes
Hughes has scored 1535 runs in 26 Test appearances at an average of 32.65
6/7 Phil Hughes
Despite making his Test debut in 2009 Hughes is still just 25 - he has played 114 First Class matches and scored 26 centuries
7/7 Phil Hughes
Although he has been absent from the Test line-up, Hughes recently regained his place in the One Day side for series against Pakistan and South Africa
“Whatever I say here isn’t going to do anything justice, really,” said Cook. “It’s incredibly sad for us in the changing room. All our thoughts are with the Hughes family, the Australian players who knew him so well and all his friends as well.”
He was asked if he thought the intensity of the game would be affected. That meant not only the bowling of bouncers, though that is bound to be closely scrutinised, but the whole manner in which cricket is conducted.
The other night when these teams played in the first match of the series two of the Sri Lankans were subsequently fined, respectively for excessive appealing and behaviour contrary to the spirit of the game. Nobody will be stepping over the line tonight and the first bouncer may be a while in coming. Who will dare bowl it?
“I think it will naturally affect it,” said Cook. “Discussions went on about whether we should play tomorrow. Both sides agreed that out of respect we should carry on playing, obviously show our respects in the right way for Phil, and try and put on a good show. We will play the game in his honour.”
In Australia, where the first Test against India is scheduled to start next Thursday, playing may be more difficult. So many players were so emotionally attached to a man who, in all likelihood, would have been selected for the match, that it may be neither possible nor appropriate. On the other hand it may also be what the nation and the sport want and need.
It is entirely natural that there should be a degree of soul-searching about safety. Hughes may have been the victim of a rare, all but unprecedented, accident in big cricket but the perils inherent in facing a missile aimed at your chest or head hardly need spelling out.
There will be no attempt to vanquish the bouncer, for that supplies some of the essential balance between bat and ball. In the bowels of the Premadasa Stadium, Cook said what was on all our minds: “As we know, this is a real, tragic accident. I don’t think we should change the way we play cricket at all. I don’t think that is the right way to go about it.
“We have got to keep working as hard as we can, the manufacturers and authorities, to make cricket as safe as we can. This is a real reminder to everyone that we can’t take anything for granted.
“We have got to try to improve player safety, even though improvements even since I started playing cricket have gone through the roof in terms of helmets and the technology. If you’re going to play a game you’ve got to do it properly.”
Cook and Hughes had things in common, both being left-handed openers with a passion for farming. They were different kinds of batsmen, as Cook stated categorically, but they still picked each other’s brains.
They spoke at the end of the 2013 Ashes series. If there was the odd exchange of views about how to nail the square cut, the discussion will have veered towards matters agricultural pretty quickly. Hughes had established a herd of Angus breeding cattle; Cook relishes being at home for lambing. “He was one of the chaps I would chat to,” he said.
What bound them together in essence, of course, was not opening the batting left-handed or being farmers: it was cricket. And Cook had no answer to where this catastrophe had left the golden game. As he said, while noting that this was not the time for saying so, it would move on. But how it might do so was beyond him for the moment.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “In competitive sport we’re always finding balance, aren’t we? We always talk about playing it in the right way. What has happened over the last three days has certainly clarified in my mind that it is just a game of sport.
“We’re incredibly lucky to be playing for England or Australia or Sri Lanka or any national side, state side or county side, and it is just a game of sport. We have a mass responsibility to play the right way.”
The game will survive, though whether it flourishes today may be doubtful. In defeat by 25 runs on Wednesday, England had ample consolation in the wonderful innings of 119 played by Moeen Ali. Cook himself still needs runs but he demonstrated on Friday in almost unbearable circumstances that there is sometimes more to captaincy than scoring them. For that alone, he deserves a few.