Phil Hughes – sport and life in context

It is a strange thing that sometimes you become so used to something that you forget how odd it is. So it is with this weird and wonderful game of ours. With the news of Phil Hughes’s horrific accident yesterday, it made me realise, as if it were not obvious, that cricket is not so far removed from David casting his sling at Goliath, the only difference being our projectile is better crafted than the average rock. And that is sport. In many respects, sport is an outlet for the physical violence, aggression and desire for superiority that our species is so sadly adroit at, a way to utilise our skill at killing and maiming in a safer and more controlled environment.

This is not a new idea – parallels between war and sport are as old as the hills. Sir Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada, a mildly jingoistic adoration of the Victorian public school system and, let’s face it, third-rate poetry, speaks of the need to ‘Play up! Play up! and play the game!’ whether with ‘ten to make and the match to win’ or by ‘the river of death’, where ‘England’s far, and Honour a name’. Cricketers who fought in World War II spoke of the freedom with which they played in the post-war years – a realisation of how insignificant sport was when compared to war but also a celebration of their friends and colleagues that would never play again. Keith Miller famously said, when asked about pressure in sport, ‘pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.’

But though cricket is not the same as war, that is not to say it is not dangerous, which brings us to the bouncer. Most balls in cricket are bowled with the singular aim of getting the batsman out by simple superiority of skill. The bouncer, however, has an added factor, by introducing an element of physical risk to the batsman. It is sometimes bowled to intimidate, sometimes to force the batsman to choose between defending their wicket and defending themselves, sometimes to ‘rough up’ and sometimes a bouncer is bowled with the intention of striking a batsman who is not able to evade or hit it. There is an odd, somewhat philosophical paradox here – while the bouncer is unquestionably aimed at or near the batsman’s body, as soon as he is hit, and hurt, in most cases the bowler will be among the first to run up to the batsman to check he is ok, as we saw with Sean Abbott yesterday. To hit, but not to hurt, when the latter is often an inevitable result of the former? It is almost as though, in that moment, we see the hair-thin line between cricket going from being just a game to being very much secondary to the importance of life and good health.

It is arguably all the more shocking to see a player injured in the modern game, as the danger faced by the bouncer has been alleviated by the invention of the helmet. Gone are the days of the bravado of the likes of Brian Close, whose attitude to pain was “How can the ball hurt you? It’s only on you for a second”, or Viv Richards, who bravely (or foolishly?) continued to bat without a helmet for his entire career. The bouncer is now a legitimate scoring opportunity for most decent batsman far more than it is a threat. It may be bowled at anyone these days – just ask Jimmy Anderson after his heroic duck against Sri Lanka at Lord’s – because added protection has reduced the risk of hurting the batsman, while the inability of poor batsmen to play it has not sufficiently improved to negate it as a tactic for getting him out. Until the helmet, it was pretty poor form to bounce a tail-ender, unless he had shown himself able to stick around long enough to merit an exploratory bumper or two. Indeed, it remains the case that persistent intimidatory bowling, which is judged with regard to the ‘relative skill of the batsman’, is against the laws of the game.

And that is what is so shocking about what has happened to Phil Hughes. War is commonplace in the world, but cricket is not war; cricket is not meant to threaten your life; cricket is a game. We simply don’t expect to see someone so seriously hurt these days. It is the moment when sport ceases to be sport and drags us back to reality.

We wish Phil Hughes well and hope to see him back on a cricket field very soon.

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