Phil Hughes dead: Cricket unites in grief on one of its saddest days

The game will struggle to come to terms with this tragedy

Stephen Brenkley
Thursday 27 November 2014 21:03

He will for ever be 63 not out. For as long as the game is played Phillip Hughes’ tragic final innings will resonate. In the mind’s eye Phil will stroll down the pavilion steps again any moment, saunter to the middle, take his guard, roll his gum around his mouth and resume uncompleted business.

In that way can we always remember the 25-year-old left-handed batsman who died yesterday in a Sydney hospital. He never regained consciousness after being struck in the neck by a bouncer while playing for South Australia against New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield match on Monday. Such a blow and its consequences, doctors said yesterday, were extremely rare in cricket and in life.

It was an unconscionably sad day for the Hughes family and for cricket. The game and its large, close fraternity will struggle to come to terms with this tragedy, that a gloriously talented batsman and splendid young man should be killed playing the game he loved.

Amidst the tributes paid to Hughes, there was rightly an outpouring of unadulterated sympathy for the bowler, Sean Abbott. This was a heart-rending accident. Abbott was merely doing his job as a fast bowler. The bouncer he delivered has been bowled a thousand times, a million times. It was nothing out of the ordinary. The bouncer has been an integral part of the game, it helps to balance the contest.

Consider these protagonists on Monday at the SCG. Hughes was batting with aplomb, he was batting for a recall to the Australia Test side after a solid, if unspectacular start to the first-class season. A century at the SCG against his former team might swing it.

Abbott is 22 and last month in Sharjah he made his one-day international debut for Australia against Pakistan. He was in his 10th over, he had tried a couple of bouncers, he tried another, the batsman went to hook, missed. And the world changed forever.

Always lurking in the cricketing thought processes, left unsaid most of the time is the dread that something like this could occur. But it never had, therefore it never would. Cricket is supposed to have the gladiatorial combat.

Yet the rarity of what happened was stressed by Peter Brukner, the Cricket Australia team doctor, yesterday. The ball hit Hughes on the vertebral artery leading to the brain, which caused it to split and led to a massive bleed on the brain. Dr Bruckner pointed out that the medical response at the ground was excellent and kept the player alive before he was transported to hospital. There, emergency surgery was performed to try to reduce the swelling on his brain.

“This was a freakish accident, because it was an injury to the neck that caused haemorrhage in the brain,” Dr Brukner said. “This condition is incredibly rare. It’s called vertebral artery dissection, leading to subarachnoid haemorrhage. If you look in the literature there’s only about 100 cases ever reported. So I think it’s important to realise that yes, we need to review all our procedures and equipment, but this is an incredibly rare type of injury.”

The game was united in its grief. The second day’s play was cancelled in the Test between Pakistan and New Zealand in Sharjah, the England team, shocked to the core by the news to which they awoke in Colombo, called off the day’s press conference and there will be a minute’s silence before the second one-day international tomorrow. At the SCG and Lord’s and countless other grounds flags flew at half mast.

From round the world, cricketers and clubs and administrators expressed their grief. Twitter and Facebook ran with tears. Nobody could quite grasp that this had happened to an accomplished batsman doing what he was born to do.

In Australia, the response from the moment it happened was utterly dignified. Michael Clarke, the national captain, rushed to be with Hughes, his great friend who was like a brother, and kept vigil.

It was Clarke, exhausted and bleary-eyed, who read the family’s statement yesterday. “Cricket was Phillip’s life,” he read, “and we as a family shared that love with him.”

The game will do well to remember that in the months ahead. However singular this catastrophe was, there will not be much appetite for slinging down bouncers on decks fast or slow. There will be regular pause for thought. Helmets, which have undoubtedly transformed the batsman’s approach, will be much scrutinised but this was neither the cause nor the fault here.

Hughes achieved so much and was on the cusp of achieving so much more with that immediately likeable, irregular method. He was the youngest player to score two hundreds in a Test, the first Australian to score a hundred on his one-day international debut, the first to score a one-day double ton. This reporter’s enduring memory, apart from his romantic entrance to England in 2009 when he scored three hundreds for Middlesex by the first week of May, will be of his stoic 81 not out in the coruscating Ashes Test at Trent Bridge last year as Australia put on 163 for the last wicket. This was no one-trick batsman.

Yes, Phil Hughes loved cricket, he was uncomplicated but driven but he had plans. With his father Greg he has established an Angus cattle breeding herd. That is what lay in store for him in rural New South Wales when the cricket was done. He was asked last year if he would stay in the game. “Not a chance,” he told the writer, Andrew Ramsay. “The day I play my last game, I’m heading up for the property. I’ll tell you that right now.”

James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, encapsulated it all in what was an official, heartfelt statement. He noted that the word tragedy was used far too often in sport but this freak accident was now a real-life tragedy. He venerated Hughes the cricketer.

Then he said: “But it was Phillip as a person that we will miss most. He was a classic example of his country upbringing: humble, understated and hard-working. When the chips were down or he had a setback he simply got on with the job and worked harder. He set a wonderful example to any young person seeking to make their way in life.” Always 63 not out, preparing to take guard again.

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