Does cricket need to rethink player safety after the Phil Hughes episode?

Last week was another dark one for the game of cricket. In India, the people running the BCCI were heavily censured by the Supreme Court.The state of IPL,the premier 20-20 tournament in the country hangs in the balance with calls to ban CSK and RR gaining with every passing moment. But this is more a problem of the power brokers of the game and it is mainly about out of field incidents. The moment that shocked the world and probably raised a lot of questions on the current state of the game was an on-field event. Phil Hughes getting ready for a highly anticipated series against India was pressing his case for selection by making 63 for his county, when he misjudged a hook of Sean Abbot and the ball crashed into the back of his head just under the helmet. Hughes immediately collapsed and players and medicos tried to revive him on the field and rushed him to the hospital. After two tense days, all efforts to revive him failed and he passed away at the young age of 25.

The sad moment brought to a halt the hectic world of cricket and raised the queries of player protection and the needs of the protective elements. Over the years the protective gear has improved dramatically and today’s generation generally has access to protective gear for all parts of the body. Phil Hughes himself had the protective gear in place and his helmet would have protected him generally, but as his back was exposed, the ball stuck at a critical spot just below the helmet. As an opening batsmen myself during my playing days, I can relate to the raw fear that goes through the head when you sniff the leather of a bouncer that you misjudge. Of course, at the level at which I used to play the bowlers were much slower, but we used to basically play with limited protective gear of questionable quality. As couch experts sitting in the comfort of our sofas, we tend to critisize our cricketers of not giving everything on the field and basically soften up when faced with a barrage of bouncers, but realistically how many of us will be willing to take such risks to earn our livelihood. Granted that the money is huge, but will it be enough to console the family of Phil Hughes? Definitely not!!

Ironically, the way the game is going, I think going forward the bowlers will be more in threat than the batsmen for serious injury. These days the bats are becoming bigger and better. The power they can generate is amazing and quite frankly frightening if you are a bowler. During my playing days, the power usually came from the shoulders or wrists of the batsmen, but these days all you need to do is time the ball and the pace is generated by the great bats. In the given circumstances, it is not long before a bowler with a longish follow through bowls a slower delivery and the batsman swings his bat and the ball takes the head of the bowler or even the umpire who is not so far away any way. I understand the crowds love sixes and fours, but it should not come at the cost of players.

While tributes are flowing in from both players and officials for Phil Hughes, the best tribute to him would be to take this time to take a hard look at the game we love and ensure that safety concerns are looked into and addressed. Even after more than 100 years of International cricket, there are no clear specifications on the kit attributes or on ground sizes. While ICC has a general guidelines for the ground sizes, I think there is a bigger need to have specifications for the international game. Also, I think it is high time that bat specifications are finalized. Of course, there can still be variations and size differences, but generally they should all fit into pattern. As a romantic, I would love to return back to the days when the class of the batsman included the test of strength, wristiness as well as timing.

Some time back, ex-Indian player Raman Lamba also met with death on the field while fielding at forward short leg. The same discussions were triggered at that time and though some of the onsite medical facilities were improved and players started using helmets on a more regular basis, no real attempt was made to look at the cricketing gear in general. As a cricket fan, I hope that we do not need to see another fatality before the shenanigans at ICC look into this matter. Unfortunately, given the dirty politics that seems to be playing through the corridors of power at ICC, I think this moment will just remain another poignant moment in the game and nothing more.

Finally, my heart goes to the family members of Phil Hughes and hope that they have the strength to deal with it. The only silver lining for his family is the fact that he died playing the game he loved and he will perenially remain not-out on 63.

RIP Phil Hughes.

– Ram


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