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.

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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 appears in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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