The tragic death of Phil Hughes on a cricket field has revived memories of another day. My late father tells me the story of the mood in the Indian team on the 1962 tour of the West Indies when their captain Nari Contractor was hit by a bouncer. As Contractor was rushed to the hospital, my father was next in to bat. “For a few minutes, I felt something I have never felt before or after on a cricket field. Fear.’ That evening, he said everyone in the Indian team looked ashen-faced as players rushed to give blood. Contractor survived. Sadly, Hughes did not.
Ironically, Contractor was in the pre-helmet era while Hughes is a product of an age where players look like gladiators. In fact, the protective gear that the Indian team had when facing the mighty Hall and Griffith in 1962 was rudimentary. The players didn’t even have proper thigh pads and had to use towels to reduce the impact of the bruising. Maybe, the absence of protection forced the players to take fewer chances: ducking and weaving was an intrinsic part of a batsman’s technique. Sunil Gavaskar with no helmet and yet facing upto the fastest bowlers was a product of that age where skill and courage in facing upto the fastest bowlers separated the men from the boys. Today, players are more inclined to take their eyes off the ball because they feel more safe in the knowledge that they have a helmet to protect them. Hughes fatal injury was probably a freak one but is a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted in sport and life. Maybe, the helmets will become even more foolproof, players a little more conscious of their own mortality.
And while we share the grief of the Hughes family and the entire cricket fraternity, spare a thought for Sean Abbott, the bowler who delivered the fatal bouncer. He will have to live with the delivery and it’s impact for the rest of his life. No blame should be apportioned to him, but the scars will take a long while to heal. And next week when India play Australia, think of the mindset of a Mitchell Johnson and the Indian batsmen: when Johnson bowls a fearsome bouncer will the crowds bay for more, will the commentators be excited, and the batsmen fearful? Cricket is a great game, only sometimes it can be a matter of life and death. Hughes passing away should be a reminder that while we celebrate the sport, let’s not get carried away by its aggressive intent. A five and a half ounces hard ball can kill.