Phil Hughes batting for South Australia before the accident. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
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Cricketers mostly ignore risk – but sometimes, as Phil Hughes found, it comes looking for you

In throwing in your lot as a professional sportsman, you make an implicit deal. The upside feels irresistible; the downside you consign as too improbable to think about.

Update 27 November: Phil Hughes died in hospital two days after the accident. He was 25 years old.

The Australian cricketer Phil Hughes was batting himself into contention to be selected for next month’s Test match between India and Australia. At 63 not out and batting nicely, he attempted a hook shot against the fast-medium bowler Sean Abbott and suffered a terrible blow to his head, below and behind his ear. For a moment, Hughes stood reeling, bent over and head down. Then he collapsed face first on to the pitch, unable to break his fall – a second sickening blow to the head. He lost consciousness and was rushed to hospital for urgent surgery to relieve bleeding on his brain. He remains in a critical condition.

Risk, injury, bad luck, tragic consequences: all things a sportsman understands. All things he mostly ignores. Perhaps you have to. Most sports bear physical risks. In throwing in your lot as a professional sportsman, you make an implicit deal. The upside feels irresistible; the downside you consign as too improbable to think about.

It is important to state upfront that cricket has a relatively good safety record. But in American football it is now becoming clear that one-third of NFL players will suffer some form of brain damage. There is also concern about the repeated collisions in rugby union, though the evidence here is nowhere near as damning. Boxing is too clear-cut a case to warrant much analysis.

Serious head injuries in cricket are extremely rare. In 1962, the Indian Nari Contractor was unconscious for six days after a Charlie Griffith bouncer fractured his skull. Thirteen years later, the New Zealander Ewen Chatfield was knocked out and swallowed his tongue, having been hit on the temple: the England physio saved his life by giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Both incidents happened before the invention of the helmet, the most transformative piece of kit in the history of the sport.

There were three distinct phases in the evolution of risk and danger within the art of batting. In the early professional era, protective equipment was risible but bouncers were infrequent and sustained attempts to hit batsmen were highly unusual. There is a reason why the Bodyline Tour of 1932-33 provoked a diplomatic incident: the risks seemed unacceptable not only because they were high but also because they were new.

The second phase – the most terrifying – was the period before the arrival of the helmet but after the acceptance of bouncers as a legitimate tactic. Many of cricket’s most visceral stories originate in the 1970s, when batsmen had to face the Australian pacemen Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, as well as the lethal West Indian quartet of quicks – all while wearing nothing more protective than a cloth cap or a floppy sunhat. By the 1980s, the modern era, almost everyone was wearing a helmet (except the peerless Viv Richards).

Those of us who wore a helmet will never fully know how we would have fared in an earlier age. But I have spoken to players whose careers straddled both pre- and post-helmet eras. People whose judgement I trust are clear about this: batting without a helmet was a very different proposition. Fear was more innately bound up with the job. That is not nostalgic myth-making, just a fact.

Personal experience convinces me they are right. The most physically threatened I felt as a batsman was not in the professional game, when I always wore a helmet, but at school, when I often did not. I vividly remember, in one of my last school matches, only a year before I was playing first-class cricket, facing a fast bowler in good rhythm. He was probably bowling only about 82mph – brisk, but not express by professional standards. But I was wearing a cap and the pitch was uneven and unpredictable. It is a startling thought: imagining those same conditions and the same absence of protective equipment, except facing Jeff Thomson or Andy Roberts instead.

Even though I inevitably got hit now and then, in 13 years as a professional cricketer I never seriously worried about getting hurt. Then, strangely, on the day I retired (even though it had been prompted by injury), I experienced an emotion I’d never known before. I caught myself thinking, “There is always the risk of something serious going wrong. You were lucky you played so long without it happening to you.” Perhaps I’d been suppressing the thought for years and retirement permitted my mind to follow different, freer directions, unconstrained by the mental conditioning – or denial – that lies at the heart of professional sport.

Hughes, of course, was wearing a helmet, as you’d expect. But for a batsmen to be able to see clearly and move freely, there will always be gaps in his protective armour. So the inevitable analysis and scrutiny of helmet manufacturers and safety measures is, to some extent, beside the point. We take risks in sport, as we do in life. We hope the risks are known and tolerably low. Every now and then, someone finds the fateful lottery has his name on it.

I missed Hughes’s stint as an overseas professional at Middlesex by a matter of months. He was popular, straightforward and above all resilient – a country boy with a huge grin and a balanced character. With 26 first-class hundreds already (he is still only 25), he has been unlucky not to play more Tests for Australia. All that might have changed. How trivial it now sounds, as the metaphorical struggle of cricket has been supplanted by the game of real life.

“Hughes finds a way,” I’ve heard many people say about his batting. They mean that his instinctive competitiveness and desire, his guts and drive, have allowed him to hang in there, to overcome difficult odds. One more time, Phil, that’s all we ask, just once more. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.