Phil Hughes batting for South Australia before the accident. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

Interview: Momentum’s vice chair Jackie Walker on unity, antisemitism, and discipline in Labour

The leading pro-Corbyn campaigner sets out her plan for the party.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters celebrate after his second win, Jackie Walker – vice chair of the pro-Corbyn campaign organisation Momentum, a Labour member and an activist – talks about the result and the next steps for Labour’s membership.

Walker is a controversial figure in the party. Her history as a black anti-racism activist and advocate for Palestine, and her Jewish background on both sides of her family, did not keep her from being accused of antisemitism for a February Facebook post about the African slave trade. In May, she was suspended from the Labour party for her comments, only to be reinstated a few weeks later after a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee.

Anger was reignited at an event hosted by Momentum that she spoke at during Labour party conference, on whether Labour has an antisemitism problem. Walker said the problem was “exaggerated” by Corbyn’s critics, and used as a “weapon of political mass destruction” by the media. (We spoke to Walker before this debate took place).

After a summer plagued by suspensions of Labour members, accusations of hateful speech on both sides, and calls for civility, Walker discusses what steps need to be taken forward to help bring the party together.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke in his acceptance speech about wiping the slate clean and the need to unite the party. What steps can members from all sides take to unite the party?

I think people have got to stop using antagonistic language with each other, and I think they’ve got to stop looking for ways to undermine the democratic will of the membership. That has now been plainly stated, and that’s even with something like 120,000 members not getting their vote because of the freeze. He has increased his majority – we all need to acknowledge that.

Is there anything that Corbyn’s supporters need to do – or need not to do – to contribute towards unity?

I can’t speak for the whole of Jeremy’s supporters, who are numbered in their hundreds and thousands; I know that in my Labour group, we are always bending over backwards to be friendly and to try and be positive in all of our meetings. So I think we just have to keep on being that – continue trying to win people over by and through our responses.

I was knocking doors for Labour last week in support of a local campaign protesting the planned closure of several doctors’ surgeries – I spoke to a voter on a door who said that they love the Labour party but felt unable to vote for us as long as Corbyn is leader. What should we say to voters like that?

The first thing I do is to ask them why they feel that way; most of the time, what I find is that they’ve been reading the press, which has been rabid about Jeremy Corbyn. In all the research that we and others have done, the British public agree overwhelmingly with the policies espoused by Jeremy Corbyn, so we’ve got to get on the doorstep and start talking about policies. I think that sometimes what happens in constituency Labour party groups is that people are saying “go out there and canvass but don’t mention Jeremy”. I think that we need to do the opposite – we need to go out there and talk about Jeremy and his policies all the time.

Now that Corbyn has a stronger mandate and we’ve had these two programmes on Momentum: Channel 4’s Dispatches and BBC’s Panorama, which were explanations of the group, Momentum’s role will be pivotal. How can Momentum contribute towards party unity and get its membership out on the doorstep?

I think we have to turn our base into an activist base that goes out there and starts campaigning – and doesn’t just campaign during elections but campaigns all the time, outside election time. We have to do the long campaign.

The Corbyn campaign put out a video that was subsequently withdrawn – it had been condemned by the pressure group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which has filed a disciplinary complaint against him. What are your thoughts on the video?

I find their use of accusations of antisemitism reprehensible – I am an anti-racist campaigner and I think they debase the whole debate around anti-racism and I think they should be ashamed of themselves. There is nothing wrong with that video that anyone could look at it and say this is antisemitic. I would suggest that if people have doubt, they should look at the video and judge for themselves whether it is antisemitic.

There’s been a compliance process over the last several months that’s excluded people from the party for comments on social media. Now that Corbyn is in again, how should compliance change?

One of the issues is that we have gotten Jeremy back in as leader, but control of the NEC is still under question. Until the NEC actually accepts the recommendations of Chakrabati in terms of the workings of disciplinary procedures, then I think we’re going to be forever embroiled in these kinds of convoluted and strange disciplinary processes that no other political party would either have or put up with.

There have been rumours that Corbyn’s opponents will split from the party, or mount another leadership challenge. What do you think they’ll do?

I have absolutely no idea – there are so many permutations about how this game could now be played – and I say game because I think that there are some who are Jeremy’s opponents who kind of see it as a power game. I read a tweet somewhere saying that the purpose of this leadership election – which has damaged Labour hugely – has nothing to do with the idea that actually Owen Smith, his challenger, could have won, but is part of the process to actually undermine Jeremy. I think people like that should really think again about why they’re in the Labour party and what it is they’re doing.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.