Tributes for Phillip Hughes at Adelaide Oval
© Getty Images


How dangerous is cricket?

The chilling reality that a cricket ball can kill has questioned the overall safety of the sport and made cricketers look inward

Sambit Bal

Just a year ago, a ball spat off a cricket pitch to claim a young life, in the presence of television cameras, and we feared our game would never be the same again. Phillip Hughes was 25, scored back-to-back hundreds in his first two Tests, lost his game, rebuilt it, and was on the verge of an international comeback. By all accounts, he was also a hugely likeable character, oozing country-boy charm, and full of love for his life in cricket. And when it was cut short by a ball that found its way around a tangled front-foot pull to a soft spot on the back of the neck, the shock in the cricket community equalled the grief. A broken finger or arm, or a smashed jaw or nose, had always been considered part of the deal, but how were players, and fans, to deal with the chilling reality that the ball had killed?

The physical threat of the cricket ball has never been open to question, and the bouncer has always been a legitimate part of a bowler's arsenal. But when Douglas Jardine used it ruthlessly and bloody-mindedly as an offensive strategy to neutralise Don Bradman, it caused moral outrage, and led to changes to the laws of game. In hindsight, it now seems a miracle Bodyline didn't maim or claim a life, and it can be argued that cricket is better off with legislation that makes a bowling plan designed to target the body less effective. But Hughes' death made cricketers look inwards, at both their masculine posturing and their vulnerabilities.

Cricket will lose something integral and vital if fast bowlers lose their edge

A couple of weeks after Hughes' death, Mitchell Johnson hit Virat Kohli flush on his helmet and looked stricken, and after he retired this November he spoke of how the tragedy had made him question his methods and approach to the game. A few months earlier Stuart Broad confessed to his recurring nightmares about the cricket ball after he had his nose broken by a bouncer from Varun Aaron last year. When Eoin Morgan was hit on the head during an ODI this September, there were no second thoughts about him retiring hurt immediately, and Mitchell Starc, the bowler who delivered the blow, admitted that he was shaken by the sight. If anything, Hughes' death has made cricketers uncomfortably aware of their mortality.

Cricket will never be a blood sport, but there is no pussyfooting around the truth about the bouncer. It claims a wicket once in a while, but it is bowled with the express purpose of intimidation, of softening up, and while not all fast bowlers relish hitting batsmen, they certainly like making them hop, squirm and do everything else that falls under the broad category of making them uncomfortable. For us viewers, the bouncer is cricket's nod to our primal instincts: a seriously fast bowler intent on targeting the body on a responsive pitch turns cricket into a gladiatorial contest where for the batsman survival doesn't merely mean keeping his wicket intact. There is no sight more thrilling on a cricket field than when a courageous and skilful batsman decides to take the bouncer on. Metaphorically, every ball is a life-and-death event for the batsman, but it's the physical threat of the bouncer that heightens the rush.

The bouncer is used to shake a batsman out of his comfort zone but sometimes the effects can be much more severe

The bouncer is used to shake a batsman out of his comfort zone but sometimes the effects can be much more severe © Getty Images

Even Johnson would find it impossible to judge to what extent, if at all, Hughes' death contributed to his decline as a bowler, but cricket will lose something integral and vital if fast bowlers lose their edge. As if to emphasise the point, Johnson signed off from Test cricket with two bouncer-induced wickets. The final one - a nasty, scorching climber so wickedly angled that it left Martin Guptill with no other option but to fend it with his gloves - was the most appropriate reminder of what Johnson brought to the game. In their blockbuster piece to mark Hughes' death anniversary, Sharda Ugra and Nagraj Gollapudi explore the landscape: the danger posed by the cricket ball, the legitimacy of the short delivery, the moral dilemma that confronts bowlers, the adequacy of protective equipment, and whether the reliance on helmets and such has made batsmen technically less equipped to deal with the bouncer.

Hughes' death was a tragedy, and the harshest of reminders that nothing in life, and indeed life itself, must never be taken for granted. The best way to honour him would be to make every effort to make the game safe but not sterile. His batting, after all, was based on adventure.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal