When Satan entered Eden!

Phil Hughes’s death was meaningless, but it can acquire meaning in retrospect only if the sport itself is willing to change as a result of it, writes Suresh Menon.

We tell ourselves that randomness is built into our lives, that the only certainty is death, and yet when these concepts come together, we refuse to accept it. In the days since Australian batsman Phil Hughes was killed on the cricket field, we have tried desperately to glimpse at meaning, and not succeeded very well. Randomness, meaninglessness, absurdity — the bedrock of our existence has merely shown up in greater focus.

We have needed props to help us forget the essential truths. Hence religion, hence sport. Hence sport as religion — one which has a larger constituency than those which worship one god or one million.

In competitive sport — except possibly in Formula One and boxing — no competitor confronts death every time he enters the arena. The five-time Argentine F1 world champion Juan Fangio once said, “If there is one driver who hasn’t awoken in the middle of the night, fingers clutching a sweat-stained pillow, eardrums bursting with shrieking tyres, that man, I tell you, tumbled off another planet.”

More poignant is the story of Madeleine Read, wife of motorcycle champion Phil Read who attended every race carrying a huge amount of money in her purse. According to her, “You never know when your man will have an accident and you’ll need to pay cash for a specialist or a private plane to get him home.”

There are professionals who court death: Soldiers, stuntmen, pilots, firefighters. Then there are those at the other end of the scale: accountants, writers, university professors. No one expects to die of a badly-chosen metaphor. International sportsmen (with exceptions) are closer to writers than to stuntmen. This is not because of something inherent in their sports (any sport can be dangerous), but because safety standards are high. Accidents are exactly that — accidents.

The cricketing community is taking baby steps towards reconciling the life-affirming nature of sport to its potential for tragedy. Why did Hughes’s death affect us so much, seem so personal? I didn’t know Hughes at all, and everything I knew about him came second hand, through those who had played with him or written about his game. Young men die everyday, in traffic accidents, on the battlefield. Multiple deaths become a statistic. Every single one is a tragedy to those who knew the person. Sport is a retreat from wars and traffic accidents, from the front pages of the newspapers to the back pages, at least metaphorically. We feel cheated when narratives are flipped around.

Especially when the unstated job description of the sportsman is to distract us, perhaps even inoculate us against the real world. When the outside world abruptly breaks into the artificial construct that is sport, it leaves us confused and bereft. Suddenly sportsmen aren’t superheroes. They are like the rest of us, prey to vicissitudes, victims of chance. It is a knowledge available to us, but it is comforting to push that to the back of our minds while we watch them run, jump, score goals or hit that perfect cover drive. Death on the sports field shatters a carefully-built illusion, a collective fantasy all of us buy into.

We who are many removes from Phil Hughes will move on. Those close to him — the images of Australian captain Michael Clarke teetering on the verge of a breakdown have been some of the most poignant in sport — will have to find ways of moving on too. Many never will.

But what of Sean Abbott, whose bouncer led to the freakish accident? He is just 22, vulnerable and alone. It was not his fault, of course. But logic is no consolation.

Abbott needs help: sympathy, understanding and — in his own mind — redemption. According to one report, Phil Hughes’s sister spent some time with him soon after the tragedy, and even if she didn’t say a word, the gesture said everything. Cricket does not have a system to handle those in need of help, which is why stories of player depression abound in the contemporary game. Perhaps the tragedy will push the ICC into considering such a move.

If the ICC pauses to consider player safety and the quality of protective equipment, there is one area where the temptation to react must be resisted. You cannot outlaw the bouncer, the legitimate weapon (sport lends itself to military metaphors, even if for a while now self-consciously so) of the fast bowler. It was not the speed of the bouncer that killed Hughes, but the reverse — he had completed his stroke before the ball hit him.

Over the years, from before Bodyline, through the phase when the West Indies fast bowling machinery sent out fearsome bowlers as if on a conveyor belt, and through the evolution of helmets and other gear, cricket has become safer. The law on intimidation is clear too: “The bowling of fast short-pitched balls is dangerous and unfair if the bowler’s end umpire considers that, by their repetition and taking into account their length, height and direction, they are likely to inflict physical injury on the striker irrespective of the protective equipment he may be wearing. The relative skill of the striker shall be taken into consideration.”

It is not a coincidence that there have been few fatalities.

What is needed is a sensible approach by umpires and captains. The former have to react when they see things getting out of hand (let me reiterate that Hughes was not a victim of intimidatory bowling). The latter have to use common sense to protect lower order batsmen.

In 1976, following injuries to his leading batsmen in a ‘blood bath’ in the West Indies, skipper Bishan Bedi ended the Indian innings at 306 for six. He was roundly criticized for this. But he was protecting his bowlers — neither Bedi himself nor Bhagwat Chandrasekhar were likely to add significantly to the score, and they were needed as bowlers. Bedi’s logic was irrefutable, and his action justified. Cricket, like all sport, has an element of the macho about it, and this is where danger lies.

There used to be a convention that fast bowlers didn’t bounce at tail-enders. Sometimes captains nominated the tail-enders who were then exempt from the kind of intimidation the top batsmen were subject to. It is time to turn convention into law.

The India-Australia series and the World Cup to follow are significant. How much do players contribute to the macho that maims? How much of that is television rating-driven? What is this nonsense called mental disintegration, so beloved of Steve Waugh?

For the narrative to be different, the vocabulary has to be different. In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway says, “About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” He was writing about bull-fighting, but it applies equally to cricket too.

We have come a long way from what we started out with — Phil Hughes’s death. The tragedy was meaningless, but it can acquire meaning in retrospect only if the sport itself is willing to change as a result of it.

(The Author is Editor, Wisden India Almanack)