Whatever your take on the events of last week’s coronial inquest into the tragic death of Phillip Hughes, three questions must be posed. Why, knowing the inherent dangers associated with the game, did we require a week-long investigation to establish the causes of a freak accident? Why was the apparent aim of the inquest to unveil the perpetrator of an ostensible crime? Why must the ‘nature of play’ and the negative stigma associated with cricket’s culture be attributed, or even considered as reason for Phil’s death? The inquest spent a week digging where it needn’t have. It accepted sledging as due cause and the precursor to the fatal blow when safety protocols and methods of prevention should have been the focal point of unremitting examination. Why for instance did it take two triple-0 calls and the ambulance fifteen minutes to reach the ground?
An inquest was inevitable. Indeed, it was necessary. That is if it had been conducted in the right manner. But for all the counterproductive discourses of blame that took place a piece of intelligible evidence, that could have changed our thinking towards safety, went by the wayside. Evidence that would have allowed something substantial to be taken away from the inquest without it looking like a meaningless witch hunt. The general consensus, considering all that’s been written across various media channels, is that the probing questions asked of the several cricketers served no other purpose than to allocate blame and appoint a scapegoat. This is the point at which the inquest ceased making a contribution towards a balanced conversation on preventative measures and began searching for villains, re-traumatising both the players and the Hughes family in the interim.
First came claims that the spiteful atmosphere, the sledging and the incessant use of the short ball all had a role to play in the delivery that felled Hughes. Whether words to the extent of those purportedly uttered by Doug Bollinger were spoken or not is largely irrelevant and had no bearing on the events that followed. They were contemptiple and border on reportable, but in no way did his spoken words carry their intended meaning. Sledging is a part of the game of cricket and has been for some time now. It’s a component of the game which should be placed under heavy scrutiny and have its morals questioned, particularly when these circumstances arise. But it didn’t contribute to the bowling of the bouncer that struck Phil on the neck. Sledging or no sledging, the outcome would have remained the same.
Hughes had a known weakness to the short ball. Logic tells us that a barrage of bouncers was the best way to counter his fluent run scoring. NSW made note of this and went about exploiting this frailty in a way that would bring about his dismissal. The intention behind a bouncer is not to injure, but to intimidate. It’s a tactic used in conjunction with a yorker to throw a batsmen’s footwork off kilter and bring about a false shot. Devastatingly, this ploy had fatal repurcussions in the case of Phil Hughes. A fatal blow wasn’t planned, it wasn’t an organised scheme, but it has reignited conversation around intimidatory bowling, which in itself has thrown up whole new can of worms. The bouncer rule will not, and should not change as a result of what’s happened. It’s a legitimate tactic, albeit an inherently dangerous one.
The nature of play was in many ways the crux of the issue, and the basis for which much of the inquest was founded. What is, and what isn’t within the ethical boundaries of the game in regards to sledging and behavior in general is even harder to grasp now than ever. The inquest provided no clarity on the matter, even if it attempted to make inroads at different stages. Mike-Graham Smith and Ash Burrow, the officiating umpires during the Shield game in question, were satisfied that the nature of play was not in breach of any laws of the game. Yet we spent a week arguing this point. Perhaps, had there been more trasparency around what constitutes foul-play in the game of cricket, less time would have been spent interrogating players on the sanctity of righteous play and more would have been spent addressing safety concerns. A universal set of safety standards would have better served the game than gossip around cricket’s professed cultural deficiencies. It’s the ambiguity around certain rules that led us to this line of discussion rather than to that of safety. Were some of the questioned players out of line? Under the current interpretation of the rules, it’s difficult to see how. Was the incessant use of the short ball and sledges in breach of any law? Absolutely not, but they might well have appeared so given the current understanding, or lackthereof, of the rules in place by certain sectors of the cricketing public.
The death of Phillip Hughes nye on two years ago affected me in ways too difficult to describe. It was heartbreaking, and made me question aspects of the game of cricket in ways I never had before. His death struck a nerve. Perhaps because his strength and tenacity at the crease is something i’ve always admired and hoped to replicate. There wasn’t a dry eye in my household when the funeral came on the television. Emotions were running high as Phil’s father carried his own son’s casket to its place of burial. That image will forever be lodged in my mind, as will the eerie feeling around cricket grounds in the weeks immediately following. My heart still bleeds for the Hughes family and friends. I wish there was something that could ease their pain. Unfortunately, the inquest didn’t come close to achieving this, even if its finding were never going to provide even the slightest consolation.
Phil was a victim of inadequate safety within the game of cricket, not of foul play. Preventative measures should have been the focus of the inquest. Instead, we were caught up in finding an explanation where there were none.
Vale Phillip Hughes, forever 63 Not Out.