Sport can be Dangerous

Before I get to the main subject of this post, I feel that I need to make it clear that I am deeply distressed about Phillip Hughes.  I am going to discuss what happened to him and some of the reactions and fall out that may result.  But first and foremost, I hope that Phil Hughes can resume a normal life soon, preferably one that involves cricket.  I am a fan of Phil Hughes.  I had hoped he would rejoin the Test team at some point in the future.  I still do but it does seem rather secondary at the moment.

When I was told yesterday afternoon that Phil Hughes was in a critical condition after being hit in the head by a bouncer, I hoped it was hyperbole stemming from social media.  I quickly found that it was serious indeed.  The later the night wore on, the more obvious it became that this was a terrible incident and we are in for worrying times.  There is one photo on the front page of one of the papers this morning that is truly sickening.  Hughes has collapsed and his head is being cradled by Sean Abbot.  It’s the sort of photo that wins awards and it is deeply troubling.  You can see Hughes’ face and with that image, and knowing that he received CPR for 30 minutes, it’s obvious that for a while yesterday that Phil Hughes was more dead than alive.

There are many dangerous sports and cricket, as this incident reminds us, can be one of them. I hope that the strength of the reaction to Hughes’ injury does not lead to witch hunts or kneejerk reactions.  I hope that helmet makers are not blamed.  I trust that fast bowlers will not be blamed nor prevented from bowling bouncers.  I feel for Sean Abbott.  Millions of bouncers have been bowled.  Some have been hit for six or four.  Others have seen the batsmen dismissed.  And plenty have caused fear, pain and worry.  But only a handful in the history of cricket have caused such damage. The fact that Abbott’s was one of those is pure chance.  There is not the hint of a suggestion that he is at fault and I hope he sees it like that.  I really hope that mothers will not overly worry about their children and withdraw them from their Saturday morning matches.  And I hope they don’t start playing Test cricket with tennis balls.

The reason I have concerns about over reactions are that in this day and age, every tragic accident is analysed with the aim of assigning blame and with the assumption that such outcomes can be prevented in the future.  And such analysis often stems from the focus on sensational stories in both mainstream and social media.

Naturally, this story was the headline of breakfast shows this morning.  I would imagine that it is trending highly on social media even tonight.  There is overwhelming support for Hughes and his family on social media and I am glad.  I watch ABC breakfast TV and I was a little concerned when Virginia started on the helmets.  Something along the line of, “helmets will need to be redesigned.  We must prevent this from happening in the future”.  I am glad she is concerned about our cricketers but I am also pleased that others on the show had different views, as do I.

This incident with Phil Hughes is very high profile.  It has everyone talking.  I wonder if it had been another, lesser known batsman, would the reaction be exactly the same.  For example, South Australian batsman, Tom Cooper (who I imagine will be having a fairly somber birthday today), was at the other end.  I’m not suggesting that Tom Cooper is of less value than Phil Hughes.  Nor am I suggesting that the strong reaction to Hughes’ injury is wrong of out of place.  I highlight this because I think it is relevant to any fallout that might occur.

Phil Hughes has been somewhat of an enigma.  Nobody will be admitting it today but I have heard him referred to as ‘the much maligned Phil Hughes’.  I presume that this would refer to his perceived underperforming.  In other words, he has been maligned for not reaching his potential and that has disappointed people.  But any way you look at it, his fortunes and misfortunes are well known.  I have followed his career closely since he burst onto the Shield seen virtually as a child prodigy.  My first post on Phil Hughes was in December 2008. I winced at his calamitous duck on debut in 2009.  I rejoiced at his glorious pair of tons in his second Test.  And it has been up and down ever since.

I admire his raw talent and flair.  I love his unorthodoxy.  I applaud the way he has refined his technique to address some of his flaws.  I think he could have been treated more generously by the selectors, especially in England in 2013.  I say all of these things to emphasise that even though Hughes is a fringe Test player, he is high profile and there is something about him that captures the imagination.  This all adds to the impact of him being the victim yesterday of a terrible accident.  There is even the irony that at the time he was felled, he might have been in the process of building an innings that would have resulted in a recall to the Test team when Michael Clarke is duly ruled out.

So through the graphic images and the various media, we are all very aware of Phil Hughes and his situation.  And there has been an element of shock.  The cricket community simply seems in shock that such and injury could have occurred, although I am not sure why.  Bouncers have, in fact, in the past caused life threatening injuries in first class cricket.  However, they were not so publicised simply because the of the absence of the internet and social media.  And they are not so well remembered.  Google ‘Ewan Chatfield’ or ‘Phil Simmons’ today and you will find articles about Phil Hughes.  That is because both of those players nearly died after being hit by bouncers and comparisons are being made.  In 1975 (before helmets), Chatfield was hit by a bouncer, knocked unconscious, swallowed his tongue and very nearly died.  But it wasn’t the impact that nearly killed him.  The impact made him unconscious, which is why he swallowed his tongue which you will learn at any CPR course is very dangerous.  And on the West Indies tour of England in 1988, Phil Simmons had a very similar injury to Hughes.  In a tour match, he was hit in the head and had to be operated on to remove a clot from his brain.  When he walked out of hospital eight days later, doctors were surprised at his recovery.

I have even heard this injury described as unthinkable.  Why?  Cricketers wear helmets for a reason.  When batsmen are fearful of pace bowling it is for a reason.  It is widely accepted that they can get hurt.  But killed?  Surely not.  The late, great, Malcolm Marshall is said to have once asked David Boon, “David, are you going to get out now or do I have to go around the wicket and kill you?”  I am sure Marshall didn’t literally mean it, and I am sure such a comment would not be made on a cricket field in the near future but there must have been some element of possibility in Marshall’s poser to Boonie or it was meaningless.

The fact is that cricket is one of many sports that is dangerous.  All contact sports have an element of danger and injuries, sometimes serious injuries occur.  But they are not really seen as potentially life threatening.  Then of course there are extreme sports – the main point of them seems to get a rush from the very danger. It is no surprise when people are killed base jumping, extreme skiing, ice climbing or free rock climbing.  And there are a whole range of sports where danger is inherent.  It’s not the main point but deaths sometimes occur and are even expected.  Included in these are motor racing, horse racing, water skiing, snow skiing and surfing.  I don’t think many would include cricket in that list.  It is a gentleman’s game and that has what has shocked the cricket world and the world in general.

In recent times, two female jockeys have been killed in horse racing accidents.  The fatalities were tragic and highlighted just how dangerous horse racing can be.  After the 2014 Melbourne Cup, two of the horses died in different but unusual circumstances.  The next day there was discussion about what had happened and how it could be prevented from happening again.  Some changes will be made to prevent horses dying the way those ones did but who knows what else might happen.

In this day and age, I believe an attitude has crept in that we can control our own destiny, that we are smart enough to address all risks and accidents.  Risk assessments are a buzz term.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for risk assessment and mitigation and I do them in all areas of my life.  At work, we spend lots of time identifying risks and designing risk mitigation strategies.  I think it does improve how our projects run but I try not to get over confident.  Recently, at a key point in a software development project, one of the key developers announced that he had to “go to jury duty tomorrow”.  Naturally, I asked the project manager where that was in the risk registry.  The point is that we can’t foresee all risks.  And some of the risks don’t unfold in the manner that we expect.  And another point is that in some cases, risks are accepted.  Some identified risks can’t be stopped even if they are identified.  For example, if you build your house on a floodplain, some time, sooner or later, your house will flood.  You can’t stop it.  A choice is made to proceed and deal with the outcome, if and when the risk occurs or to cease the risky activity.

I think this is the case with this injury to Phil Hughes.  There was nothing different about the bouncer he received to millions of others that have been bowled.  Hughes played it badly and unluckily it somehow evaded his helmet and hit him in a tiny, exposed area of his head, one of the most vulnerable points to blows.   Batsmen today have better protective equipment than ever and I’m sure this will trigger exploration of improvements.  But ultimately, when a small, hard, heavy object is being projected at 150 kmh, no matter what is done, there is always going to be some element of risk to the players facing those projectiles.

Aside from any potential over reaction from cricket authorities, I am curious if this incident will have any impact on cricket in the short term.  It will be impossible to measure but it’s worth thinking about.  Take for example, the 1st Test between Australia and India, which starts in Brisbane on Thursday week.  Will David Warner be affected? He was right there and went with Hughes in the ambulance.  And how about the other cricketers who were playing in the match?  And what about Johnson?  The workings of the Johnson mind over the years have been somewhat hard to follow.  His game at the moment is based on pace, aggression and confidence.  Will this incident have any impact on him and wake any sleeping demons, even though he wasn’t involved?  Whether or not Michael Clarke plays in Brisbane, will it affect the approach and attitude of the Australians?  Just over a year ago, during a very hostile spell of bowling from Mitchell Johnson, Michael Clarke told Jimmy Anderson to, ‘Face up and get ready to have his f***ing arm broken.’  Now, a broken arm is unlikely to be life threatening but just the same, I don’t foresee any comments like that being made any time soon.

Whatever happens, I hope that Phil Hughes fully recovers and is able to enjoy playing cricket again.

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