Monday, December 1, 2014

#PutOutYourBats for Phil Hughes

52 years ago, Nari Contractor readied himself to face Charlie Griffith, who was as fast and fearsome as any of the other West Indian quicks during that time, for a tour match against Barbados. He was alleged to be chucking as well. As Griffith was about to deliver the fourth ball of his second over, somebody opened a window in the pavilion which was right behind the bowler's arm. There was no sightscreen on those days and Contractor's concentration went astray. He saw the ball only inches before it hit him, at the back of his skull after he turned. He could stand after being hit but soon he started to bleed from his ears and nose, never a good sign. In hospital he remained unconscious for six days, requiring blood transfusion and a surgery. He still carries a metal plate in his skull.

That blow curtailed his Test career, but more importantly he lived to tell his tale. Phil Hughes was not that lucky.

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I have watched Hughes bat, but can't remember the matches exactly. He had a rasping cut shot but the first thing I thought after watching him bat was that he had an awkward technique. Somewhere an elbow prodded. Somewhere a foot was in wrong position. But he could manage. His backfoot defense was strong. His front foot movement was awkward at times. I remember thinking that he would not survive against spinners in India. He was magnificent during his twin knocks against South Africa. He was hoping to be in Gabba for the first Test against India.

None of these matters now. He is in a better world.

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Luck is the word, not technique or courage, neither character nor calmness. Phil Hughes was freakishly unlucky. He would have played that pull shot a million times in nets, and a thousand times in the middle when matches or trophies or career were at stake. He did not get it wrong then. Or rather he did not get so unlucky then. He played the shot a fraction early. The ball arrived a little late. He turned and got hit, where there was no protection. End of story. End of life. So unlucky.

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I am a dad myself. With my daughter I had my share of hospital days, sitting in front of the ICU desperately praying and hoping that she would make it. She did. She was lucky. I was lucky.

Now it kills me to realize that perhaps the worst thing for a man to do is to bury his young son. To bury his dreams, with the realization that he has to live his remaining life without seeing his son. I can only pray that God gives him enough strength to face this. I can only hope that Greg Hughes doesn't regret the moment when he held a cricket bat in the hands of his young son, while the coffin is lowered in to the grave.

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I have watched the video of Hughes being hit, multiple times. To those who haven't, please don't. It is very sickening. Hughes appears fine for a moment, after being hit. He tries to steady himself, by bending and lowering his centre of gravity. He tries to lean on his bat handle to be stable. Then suddenly the limbs give way and he falls face on. He never regained consciousness.

Medical reports say that the impact compressed the vertebral artery, causing it to split, leading to bleeding in brain. Hughes would not have felt any pain at all, except that fraction of a second when he got hit. At least that is what we all would like to hope for. We all wanted him to come back but that did not happen. Now we all want to believe that he went without a smidgeon of pain.

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Somewhere in Nottingham Chris Broad walked up to his son and gave him a quiet hug. He now knows that his son had a lucky escape when he took the "keep your eyes on the ball" advice a bit too seriously against an Ishant Sharma bouncer. Stuart Broad came out of it with a bruised and swollen nose, which now appears like a bargain. In the next Test match he walked out with an extra grille on his helmet, which would have avoided the ball sneaking in.

Hughes was playing with an older model of the helmet. The newer one has an additional covering on the side of the neck which would have saved him. Or probably even that would not have. But the point is we need to make safety a paramount feature in our sport. Even despite the best safety measures, there is always the unknown, unavoidable, once-in-a-million accident. Formula one circuits have medical facilities which are way better than what you find in some of the third world countries, but Jules Bianchi is still in coma after his accident at Suzuka. We can live with the fact that we failed despite the best efforts, but can we forgive ourselves, knowing that by using a better, stronger and available helmet, Hughes would have been alive now?

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I like boxers. The effort they put. The care they take. The practice they undergo. But I don’t like boxing. I don’t like boxing as a sport. Trying to knock the brain out of the skull of your opponent can never be called a sport.

I have read numerous interviews of batsmen about getting hit on the head by a bouncer. The one common thing they all say is that the impact feels like your brain being rocked inside the skull, knocking them off. It lasts only for a couple of seconds. For the lucky ones, that is. Hughes was not lucky. The pain will now last for a lifetime, for all of us.

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Whenever there is a debate on who is better between Gavaskar and Tendulkar, my mind invariably sides up with the former.  There is nothing between their records against the best teams of their era, West Indies and Australia respectively. Gavaskar has 13 Test centuries against the fearsome quicks of West Indies, 7 of them in the Caribbean itself, while Tendulkar has 11 against Australia, with some sublime knocks in Perth and Sydney.  But what really stands out in favour of Gavaskar is the fact that he played without helmet during his entire career and never got hit on his head. It is an unbelievable statistic. I had seen Tendulkar being pinned multiple times by the likes of Cronje, McGrath, Anderson and Steyn. It will be blasphemous to state that helmet made Tendulkar a greater batsman, because the genius that he was, he would have found a way around it, had helmets not been there. But at the same time the sense of protection it offers to the batsmen now can’t be ignored. That, in a way, explains the lesser technique of modern day batsmen.

 A stronger and better helmet may save modern day batsmen. But they would do well to learn what Gavaskar did to play 125 Test matches without getting hit once.
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In his marvelous book “The meaning of Sport”, Simon Barnes calls Sports a monstrous triviality.  Often we relate sporting contests to war and a matter of pride, but in reality, it is anything but that. Trivial it may be, it is us who hype up Sports to escape from our everyday lives. We defeat our struggles and apprehensions when our favourite team wins. When marriages fail, when jobs are lost, when health checkup cards resemble a breakdown engine report, we find solace in sports. Somehow an Anderson outswinger or Van Persie stunner elevates our lives above ordinary. We celebrate them as our victories.
We don’t want one of us to lose life, trying to entertain us. It is in the best interest of every sport to make it safer for those who have the courage to put their careers on the line to entertain and enthrall us. Hughes is a reminder to all of us that, nothing is certain in sport, as in life. He lost his life trying to play the sport he loved. We can’t afford this incident to stop a kid picking up a bat or kicking a ball, for however trivial it is, Sport helps us to escape from our ordinary lives momentarily.
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Nothing puts life in perspective like death. Hughes’ death reminds all of us about the perils of Sport which is used to celebrate life.
As the ever eloquent Simon Barnes put it in his tribute on Hughes, “A loss. Not a waste”

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