Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Can good come from the Hughes tragedy? Oh yes, and the Kiwis areshowing the way

When I was at Dulwich College in the 1950s a boy around my age was killed playing rugby. Later, when I was at school in Cambridge in the early 1960s, a fourteen-year-old was killed crossing the Trumpington Road. Apart from the effect they had on me these two happenings were, of course, unconnected. Both were freak events devastating to those involved. And both were utterly avoidable. The rugby death came when the player hit his head against a post. In those days it was not required, nor customary, to clad the base of rugby posts with soft protective material. If it had been this boy, not then in his teens, would not have died. The boy at The Leys might also not have died if there had been a pedestrian crossing at that part of the road. There now is, and has been for decades.

Life and sport can kill. But over the past fifty years or so societies have reduced random dangers through legislation. "Health and Safety" laws are easy targets for those who see them as being an infringement of our freedoms. How often have you heard the phrase "Health and Safety gone mad"? The fact that countless lives have seen saved is often forgotten.

Health and Safety in sport has improved beyond recognition. At my time at school not only were rugby posts unpadded but cricket helmets were unknown. And at the professional sport level it was no better, not least in Motorsport. I have always enjoyed Formula one but for too long it was a lethal sport with protection for drivers and spectators alike unknown. Gradually circuits and cars have improved and today F1 tends not to kill people. But it is still dangerous - as we have seen this year with the crippling and near fatal injury to Marussia driver Jules Bianchi. Some sports are inherently dangerous and in modern times safety has rightly been a priority. Over the years serious injury or fatalities were rare in cricket, not least because batsmen learned to avoid the short balls that came up around their heads. But helmets came in to reduce the risk if the batsman's technique failed him or if the bowling was exceptionally threatening. 

The death of Phillip Hughes was a freak event. The blow hit him not on the head but on the neck. The helmet did not fail - it did not come into play. The bowling was not especially intimidating and the ball which felled him was a standard bouncer. It was one of those random events in life which are as unpredictable as they are unavoidable. A one in many millions chance event that occurs sometimes - but is as inexplicable as it is awful. And random. This does not mean, however, that cricket should not take a long hard look at itself.

Aggressive bowling is as old as the game itself and from time to time it gets out of hand. In the "Bodyline" series of 1932/3 England's bowlers targeted the batsman physically - the Laws of cricket had later to be changed to outlaw the "leg theory" that was Bodyline. Forty or so years later the West Indies bowlers, especially Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, had a viciousness in their attack that was uniquely intimidating. Even the met competent batsmen had to duck for their lives as the Caribbean crowds chanted, “Kill them! Kill them”! 

More recently truly intimidating bowling has become more of a rarity but verbal intimidation has almost become the norm. I believe intimidation has gone too far. Verbal abuse combined with over-aggressive fast bowling targeted at the batsman himself. Mitchell Johnson boasted about aiming at Jonathan Trott's helmet grill which when combined with sledging was designed to take Trott out The Ashes. It worked.

"It was ever thus" say the apologists for aggression and violence, citing Bodyline. True. With one crucial difference . Today every ball is covered from twenty angles and the verbal abuse is often reported as well. Children see this and assume cricket is a game where these things are the norm. But cricket is not a Martial Art and violence does not have to be part of it at all. "The Spirit of Cricket" is arrant nonsense and a grotesque failure as well. It is time to take verbal and physical abuse out of the game for good. The game will be all the better for it. 

The best legacy to perpetuate the memory of Phillip Hughes would be not some knee jerk prohibition on bouncers or any attempt to change the Laws of the game to make it safer. I repeat - Hughes was killed by a freakish accident not by over aggressive bowling. But there is aggression around in cricket and it demeans the game. I like Jimmy Anderson, he's a lovely guy. But in recent times he has behaved very badly, at times, on the field of play. He's far from alone in that, of course.

Bill Shankly famously said "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." When cricket has been shown quite literally to be "a matter of life and death' it's worth thinking of Shankly's words. Yes cricket for those of us who love it is important. And for many it is their life. And there you have the solution. Jimmy Anderson and Mitchell Johnson are both decent guys. But the transformation of them from the nice Mr Jekyll into the nasty Mr Hyde is demeaning and vulgar. It's an act, and a pretty vile one frankly.

After Jimmy Anderson's Jadeja spat last summer England Captain Alastair Cook said this:

"In my eyes, he has never gone over the top on the field," he said. "He's an aggressive bowler who uses a bit of verbal to get him going and to make batting as uncomfortable as possible.
Not to put too fine a point on it this is a disingenuous lie. Cook knew that Anderson's "bit of verbal" was aggressive foul-mouthed abuse. Over the top? Of course, by any standards of civilised behaviour. Anderson and Johnson and the other practitioners of verbal abuse need to clean up their act. Play hard, you need to do that in any sport. But play fair. The task is no more to intimidate the batsmen unfairly and to rely only on your cricketing talents to win you games. The New Zealanders showed the way in the recent post-Hughes Test match (see above). Good for them. I'm not suggesting the outlawing of the short-pitched ball - the bouncer. But I am suggesting an end to the tactic of deliberately threatening the batsman and I certainly want an end to the verbal abuse. Unfair behaviour did not kill Phillip Hughes. But it probably did send Jonathan Trott home early and force fear into the minds of the England team in Australia. Sport should be bigger than that and Cricket needs to regain some moral integrity. Because for the last few years it just hasn't been "cricket" has it ?

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