Looking forward with a heavy heart: a personal reflection on the passing of Phillip Hughes

Jez articleThursday 27 November 2014 was supposed to be a day to look forward.

A day long inked into the diaries of dedicated county cricket followers. A day when we would discover our club’s fixtures for 2015: an Ashes year with all the excitement and historic rivalry that entails.

Instead the day the day rapidly took on a very different complexion.

We awoke to learn of the tragic death of one of the potential stars of next summer’s Ashes, Phillip Hughes at the tender age of 25 with the promise of a glorious career still very much ahead of him.

In an instant, speculation whether England could wrestle back the cherished urn, our plans to follow our counties around the circuit next summer – the things that both usually bind us as cricket lovers and separate us as rival fans – paled into insignificance.

Instead the cricket world united in mourning one of the players who would have undoubtedly lit up the summer of 2015.

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From Sydney to Sharjah, from Trinidad to Taunton, cricket followers around the world spent the day feeling numb. In a state of shock. A state of confusion that someone could die playing the game we love.

For those who had the privilege to know and play with Phillip the impact was intensely personal. Their friend had died.

In Sydney, Australian captain Michael Clarke, who had spent the past two days at Phillip’s bedside read a statement on behalf of the Hughes family. Back in England, another close friend Nick Compton, who lived with Phillip during his Middlesex days, spoke to BBC Radio Somerset. Both men’s voices were close to breaking. It was unbearable to hear.

Players and coaches from Worcestershire, where Phillip had also played county cricket, also spoke movingly of their friend.

Wherever he played Phillip was loved. Respected. Nick Compton spoke of his carefree approach to life, his cheeky grin.

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His passing reminds of how fleeting, how precious life can be, to make the most of every day. To think about what’s important and to treasure those close to you.

And as ever in times like this, the close-knit cricket community has come together. There has been an outpouring of support for Phillip’s family from players, coaches, administrators and fans.

Unprompted, people from every corner of the globe, unconnected other than by a shared love of the game, took to Twitter last night with the simple hashtag #putoutyourbats. It was a profoundly moving expression of support for Phillip Hughes’ family and a simple mark of respect for the man. Reading the hundreds of messages brought you close to tears. And very proud to be a follower of such a great sport.

One hopes, in some small way, that such tributes will in time bring some comfort to the Hughes family and Phillip’s many friends.

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Phillip’s death has inevitably ignited a media debate about the safety of cricket. Yet few players, even those close to him like Nick Compton, are advocating the kind of changes being spoken about by some observers.

Such incidents are mercifully rare, but underline the bravery displayed by batsmen every time they walk out to face deliveries fired down at speeds in excess of 80-90 miles per hour. Phillip’s death is a stark reminder of the inherent risks involved in such a precarious profession.

But the kneejerk reactions calling for bouncers to be outlawed need to be met with caution. No bowler sets out to maim and there can be no blame laid at the door of Sean Abbott, a young man who needs all our support in the weeks ahead.

In truth, safety standards have improved dramatically since the 1970s when Somerset’s Brian Close used his body as a human shield against the battery of West Indian quicks. Despite that, “freak” accidents can still happen and questions are again being asked about the efficacy of helmets in particular.

This week’s news inevitably brought back memories of the horrific injury sustained by Somerset’s own Craig Kieswetter just this summer when a bouncer from David Willey went through the gap above the grill in his helmet, breaking his nose and fracturing his eye socket. Thankfully Craig is now fully recovered and playing in the Ram Slam T20 tournament in South Africa.

Anything that can be done to make ‘lids’ safer still is to be welcomed. But by all accounts Phillip was hit below the helmet, on his neck. Doctors say there have been only 100 previously recorded cases of this type of injury. And only one of those involved a cricket ball.

Could adding protection to the back of the neck to prevent such a rare occurrence end up impeding movement and make it harder for batsmen to play their shots or sway out of the way of short balls? These are legitimate questions and the game shouldn’t rush to make changes.

Cricket Australia’s urgent, yet carefully considered investigation into player safety is therefore laudable. It is entirely sensible to see whether further improvements can be made. As CA chief executive James Sutherland said: “statistics say it is clearly a freak incident, but one freak incident is one freak incident too many.” We await the findings of the review with interest.

This debate about protection for batsmen and the short ball is certain to intensify over the coming days. For now though, the thoughts of the cricket community are firmly with Phillip and his family.

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The Brisbane Test next week may be cancelled. Yesterday’s play in the Test between Pakistan and New Zealand at Sharjah was called off. But the game of cricket will ultimately pick itself up and find a way to continue.

It will be a poorer place without one of its rising stars, who left an indelible impression in his short career. He was a rising star of the sport. His twin hundreds in the same Durban Test match against Steyn, Morkel, Ntini and Kallis in 2009 attests to both his talent and bravery. He will not be forgotten.

Next summer’s Ashes will still draw big crowds both in the grounds and on television and be a major talking point wherever cricket is played. But there will be a noticeable absentee on the field of play. This week will leave a scar which will take a long time to heal.

We will look on next summer with added respect for both the way the players have handled themselves amid tragedy and for the way they face the risks that come with playing professional sport.

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Today on The InCider we publish Somerset’s fixtures for next summer. Phillip Hughes would have wanted the game he loved so much to go on and be enjoyed. But it is with a heavy heart that we look forward this morning.

Today wasn’t supposed to be like this.

At the request of Phillip Hughes’ mother, we have referred to him throughout this article by his full name.

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