Danny Hall’s Column: The death of Phillip Hughes was a tragedy. But top-level sport needs that element of risk

TRAGEDY: Australia batsman Phillip Hughes. Picture: Nick Potts/PA.
TRAGEDY: Australia batsman Phillip Hughes. Picture: Nick Potts/PA.
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It was a typically-beautiful Australian November morning, when a young 14-year-old playing junior cricket in New South Wales reached 37 runs and immediately retired from the crease.

Down Under, as in England, junior players retire when they reach 50. That weekend, that number had been increased by 13, to honour the late Phillip Hughes, who tragically died while batting for South Australia against NSW in a Sheffield Shield match.

Tributes had poured in from all over the world for probably one of Australia’s most promising young batsmen, and undoubtedly one of Australia’s finest young men.

But few were as emotive as this 14-year-old’s. He knew little about the rare, freak injury that Hughes suffered, vertebral artery dissection.

He could contribute little to the intense debate that has since raged, with cricketers’ safety in the spotlight more prominently than the infamous Bodyline saga which gripped the sport.

But he wanted to do something, to honour his fallen hero who will forever be 63 not out. So he walked off with 37 runs to his name, looked at his coach and said: ‘I got Phillip to his hundred.”

Wow.

Of course, much has been said and written about Hughes, his injury and his legacy since that fateful delivery, from the absolutely-blameless Australian quick Sean Abbott.

Hughes was just 25; Abbott three years younger, at 22. Both epitomised the Aussie approach to cricket, and to life; go hard on the field, live easy off it. Tragedy is a word over-used in sport when things don’t go right, but the fact that Philliplip Hughes will never again pick up a bat - and Abbott may never feel able to pick up another ball - is nothing short of tragic.

The pain of Hughes’ passing is still raw, and footage of the incident still too harrowing to watch. I viewed it when news first broke of the incident, and wished I hadn’t ever since. Abbott, a former team-mate and close friend of Hughes, delivers a brutal bouncer and the batsman turns his head as he misses the shot, the ball striking him in the neck just below his helmet. For a few seconds, he remains upright, hunched over. Then he falls.

So, should cricket learn the lessons from Hughes’ death? Absolutely - if there are any. And I’m not convinced there are. Sure, helmet manufacturers will beef up protection levels and some will argue that bouncers should be banned.

But as well as an obvious difference in talent, that element of risk is what makes the top-level of sport exactly that. The elite sportsmen of our time aren’t just judged on their talents, but their mental abilities - to cope with their opponents, on the field and in the mind.

It is a mindset not too different from those who packed the Coliseum in Rome all those years ago, watching gladiators tested to the limit from the relative safety of the stands. Kevin Pietersen, in his autobiography-cum-character assassination of Andy Flower and Matt Prior, described the feeling of facing Mitchell Johnson in Brisbane during the last Ashes series.

(The threat of Johnson was so severe, remember, that Jonathan Trott left the tour with anxiety issues soon after).

“Boom...” Pietersen writes. “The first ball from Johnson hits Trotty on the glove as he jumps back and tries to shield his face. A shudder ran through the dressing room.

“Lunch? No thanks. I was sitting there thinking: I could die here in the f****ng Gabbatoir”.

The fear is always there. Sportsmen are not immune to it. They know that one mistimed tackle on the field, or one suckerpunch in the ring, or one split-second misjudgment on a bend, could end their careers, or far worse. That is what helps define top-level sport. And what defines elite athletes is their ability to deal with it.

Ask Pietersen if he would like a second crack at the ‘Gabbatoir’ and he’d probably jump at it. No doubt Matt Hampson, who became a C45 tetraplegic after a freak training accident with England’s U21 rugby side in 2005 and wrote an excellent book entitled Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson, would have got back up and re-set the scrum if it hadn’t had such catastrophic consequences.

And Phillip Hughes, you can bet, would have gone at the next short delivery with all his might, had that fateful ball not had the devastating impact that it did.

That is their instincts, in situations they strive for. Hampson, as a junior, used to dream of playing rugby for England. Pietersen, after arriving in England and pledging allegiance to the three lions, did everything in his power to earn the right to face Johnson et al in today’s modern-day Coliseums.

Phillip Hughes was, as described by his best mate Michael Clarke in the best possible way, a simple country boy who loved his family, loved life on the farm and loved playing cricket, especially for Australia.

He knew the dangers that the game brought, and took on some of the game’s most ferocious bowling attacks head first anyway. One story last week told how he confronted Andre Nel, South Africa’s fearsome fast bowler.

Nel didn’t dare turn around. Another time Clarke, Australia’s captain, came down the pitch to ask Hughes if the ball was swinging in the air, or moving off the pitch.

And all Hughes could think about were his cows, back on the farm.

“Apart from when he was home with his beloved cattle, Hughesy was at his happiest playing cricket for his country with his mates,” Clarke said.

“Things were always put into perspective when Hughesy said: ‘Where else would you rather be, boys, than playing cricket for your country?’”

That is the legacy that Phillip Hughes’ life and death should leave behind - the memory of an affable young man who loved the simple things in life, who wanted to improve as a player and as a person day after day, and who died doing what he loved - playing cricket.

Clarke, who has shown himself as a great leader, captain and bloke throughout this whole tragic episode, also reserved a poignant message for Abbott.

“Sean, when you feel like getting back on the horse mate, I promise you that I will be the first to strap on the pads and go stand up the end of the net to hit them back at you,” Clarke said.

“It’s exactly what Hugh Dog would want us both to do.”

Time will only tell if Abbott ever feels he can bowl again, with the same pace and ferocity which saw him talked up as a Aussie star of the future. We will wait and see whether Hughes’ tragic death signals a change in that thirst for danger.

But what can be guaranteed is that Hughes’ memory will live on. He died as he lived - being bold, brash, expansive. Rest in peace, Phillip Hughes.

He will forever be 63 not out, and will never be forgotten.