Why you should care

Killed on the field, Hughes reminds us of the bravery of sport.

On March 10, 2009, Australian batsman Phillip Hughes became the youngest cricketer in history to score a “double century” — 100 runs in both innings of a Test match. Most players who approach this rare feat take the safe route, attempting pokey, bunt-like shots to pass the mark. So when Hughes reached 99 in the second innings, his batting partner, Simon Katich, braced for a quick steal. But this was only Hughes’ second game, and he apparently hadn’t read the script. “I should have realized the young bloke is going to belt it out of the ground with gay abandon,” said Katich.

Abandon, in cricket, can turn matches on their heads and bring crowds to their feet. Hughes had loads of it and wasn’t afraid to bring it to the sport’s biggest arenas. This Nov. 25, during a club game at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Hughes leaned back and attempted another of those unrestrained attacking shots. But the ball — a bouncer, in cricket lingo — struck him on the neck, splitting an artery. Hughes stumbled, fell and, two days later, died. He’d have turned 26 this past Sunday.

His style was brutal, elegant and centrifugal, and he could be erratic.

Australia has already retired his squad number, and respects have paid from Broadway to Brisbane. But what rises from the tears and tributes is this: Hughes’ was an electric talent, one who could swing from white hot to cold in mere minutes, delighting crowds and confounding coaches. His style was brutal, elegant and centrifugal, and he could be erratic. He treated Test matches, which can last five days and still end up a draw, as a stage for dismantling the world’s best bowlers.

A cricket ball is a three-pound grenade of cork, wound string and leather, not unlike a baseball. Bowlers at the sport’s sharpest end can fling that ball at a batsman’s head — a delivery known as a “bouncer” — at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. Bouncers have been a mainstream bowler’s tool since the early 1930s when Wisden, the so-called Bible of cricket, decried it as “unsportsmanlike” and “a menace.” But by the time the 1980s West Indies team used bouncers to decimate opposing lineups, Wisden, and everybody else, cooed.

Australian batsman Phillip Hughes plays a shot on March 6, 2009 during the first day of the second test match bewteen South Africa and Australia at Kingsmead stadium in Durban.

Australian batsman Phillip Hughes plays a shot on March 6, 2009.

Source Gianluigi Guercia/Getty

Today the number of bouncers is limited to two per six-ball “over” delivered by a bowler in Test cricket. But it remains an undeniably effective tool for intimidating and deterring batsmen from attacking the ball. Sean Abbott, the 22-year-old New South Welshman who delivered Hughes his last ball, tops out at around 90 mph. He must now shoulder cricket’s grimmest burden and may never play again.

In the wake of Hughes’ death, some have questioned the faster modern game of cricket and the pressure on batsmen to attempt ever more daring and dangerous strokes. Others have considered banning the bouncer, though the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council, has ruled this out. A more reasoned and focused conversation would look at the protective gear that failed Hughes and should be re-engineered so it never fails again. Had Hughes’ helmet covered a greater part of his head, he would not be dead. As it is, we are left to deal with the sobering loss of a 25-year-old batsman who thrilled to play a bold and aggressive game and likely would have wanted it to continue that way.

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