It’s Just Not Cricket


Historic Photo of Harold Larwood bowling to Bill Woodfull during the 1923-24 Ashes ‘Bodyline’ Series (source Wikipedia)

In a recent article, I posed the thought that a Blame Culture equals a Lame Culture, and how debilitating it can be to always seek to find blame in someone or something else.  Being able to accept and analyse failure is a key success factor in any endeavour, and staying above the blame line when things have turned to crap can be pretty difficult.

Sport teaches us how to analyse risk and reward and adapt through success and failure.  We learn how and when to make these judgements whilst having fun with our mates at the same time, it’s one of the reasons why I love sport so much.  Of course, we live in an increasingly risk adverse society – which can make us risky in a perverse sort of way.

There is a one school of thought that aggressive sports have no place in modern society.  Others suggest that modern urbanists no longer want to participate playing aggressive sports, but are compelled to watch to satisfy a primitive streak, the more aggressive the better.  For me, the drama and excitement of sport played at its highest and most competitive level is compelling viewing.  In any event, the media value of some of our biggest sports have been going through the roof.

However, worldwide statistics are showing that these same sports are struggling with a decline in grass-roots participation.  Sports like NFL seem vulnerable due to concerns over health and the resulting negative publicity.  One wonders about the risk of some mainstream sports reaching extinction threshold, where participation decline affects media value, which affects participation, and so on into a death spiral.

The reports coming from the current inquest into the tragic death of Phillip Hughes have appalled me.  I know that I am not the only person concerned that these are dark clouds indeed, not only for cricket, but many other mainstream sports.  It seems to me that the first port of call in the inquest is an attempt to apportion blame to the bowlers and the bowling team in a way that is, quite frankly, just not cricket.  Let’s think about some of the implications of where this blame game might take us.

We make bowlers liable. Actually the line that the inquest has taken has already achieved this.  It is sickening to think that these young sportsmen are being made to feel that this tragedy is their fault.  I am certain that many fast bowlers will think twice about throwing down a quality short ball in the future.

We make the captain liable. Once again, already happening.  Going forward, any captain is going to think twice about saying ‘he is suspect with the short ball, so whizz a few past his ears’.  I will raise my hand to confess that I did not relish facing a short fast ball – it was one of many weaknesses in my batting ability!

We blame the umpires and put them on notice. Well, let’s hope we don’t take a lead from World Rugby’s treatment of Craig Joubert, where they threw one of their star referees to the wolves over a call made during a World Cup game.

Confuse malicious intent with competitive banter. Only someone who has played competitive sport can appreciate what all this means, and there are less and less of us.  I consider that learning to deal with this and developing a thicker skin in the process has been a huge benefit of my time playing competitive sport.

We discourage fast bowling. An extreme position perhaps, but not as crazy as it sounds if you think about it.  One can imagine the response of school cricket coaches and sports masters to the inquest, and the prospect of themselves being held to account for an injury or accident by demanding helicopter parents.  A loss of fast bowling talent in the school yard would ultimately make its way through the ranks.

We introduce batting helmets. Oh wait, we already did that – and it was very successful in the main.  Of course, there may have been unintended consequences of the helmets as bowlers felt more relaxed about dangerous bowling, or batsmen took more risks because they felt protected by their helmets.  I was playing when helmets first started appearing in the middle, and there was a school of thought at the time that helmets restricted vision and hearing, and contributed to heat stress.  Modern helmets seem to have solved those early issues and are improving all the time with advances in manufacturing and material technology. However, the inquest has heard that even the most recent improvements would not have prevented the injury sustained by Hughes.

We limit the number of short balls and who they can be bowled to. Yep, tried that as well.

We get rid of short balls entirely. It is perhaps hard to imagine the game without the short ball and my childhood memories of a rampaging Lillie and Thompson attack would be much less vivid and exciting.  Watching this Ashes magnificence from a merciless ‘Hill’ at ‘The Gabba’ remains one of my sporting highlights.   Interestingly, I ran this article by a cricketing mate who had faced the ferocious West Indians at their best. He pointed out that there is a question of technique that gets overlooked.  He felt that there seems to be more high risk attacking shots to short balls these days that perhaps could only have been attempted with outstanding technique developed in the days before helmets.  Many, like Steve Waugh abandoned the hook/pull shot to a short ball entirely and his batting career blossomed as a result.  Perhaps the short formats have also contributed to the feeling that a batsman needs to take higher risks to short balls.

Of all these potential outcomes, I think that the most likely (and perhaps the least damaging) will be to increasingly penalise or further limit short balls above a certain speed – which will render them impotent or cannon fodder for batsmen.  If this were to even start at school and grade cricket, one could imagine that the bouncer could gradually disappear. It is hard to predict what might ultimately happen to the game should we head down this track.

The worst possible outcome of the inquest will be to single out blame to the players or umpires on the ground that day, and cricket as a sport needs to beware if it goes that way.  It might be tempting to blame someone for the tragedy so that we can divert any attention away from the game itself and resume as normal, but I doubt this is a viable long-term strategy.  It would be foolhardy and negligent not make a frank and holistic consideration of this issue, but surely this is unlikely to happen within an environment fuelled by grief, emotion and blame.

I never met Phil Hughes but, according to friends who had, he was a terrific bloke who was in love with the game and a serious traditionalist.  I suspect he would be equally appalled by the line of questioning going on right now.

Cricket is one of those sports that promotes respect and mate-ship forged in the heat of battle, even among opponents.  Cricket mates form some of the strongest and enduring bonds, but I haven’t seen that reported as yet.  Let’s hope this gets some airtime during the course of this debacle.

About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Peter
    I’m glad it’s not just me who feels disturbed about the direction this inquest is taking. I certainly don’t wish to make light of what happened to Phil Hughes, but are we seriously suggesting that this was anything other than a tragic accident that resulted from professional cricketers going about their inherently dangerous business in their normal fashion – hard but fair? As much as those affected might wish to find an explanation for the inexplicable, trying to apportion blame from flimsy evidence such as alleged on-field sledging (standard practice) or regular short-pitched bowling (standard practice) is not the way to go about it.

  2. Robbo, Some very strong points. The inquest is glorified witch hunt to appease the Hughes family which seem to want the find the culprit. While their ongoing grief is understandable, the others involved are having scar reopened for no reason. The tragic death was a one on how many million occurrence most likely the result of poor technique if the truth be know . Modern batsmen turn there head away rather than following the ball relying on their helmets to keep them safe. The outcome of the inquest will most likely be a call for ban short ball due to unsafe work practice. The ACB will fall into line and I shall never watch cricket again

  3. The attempt to find a perpetrator here is sad. The family are being badly counselled.

  4. Len Rodwell says

    Agree with all these comments. I would think a lot of people will stop watching cricket and possibly stop playing it as well.

  5. Thanks for the comments and additional insights. guys,
    I sometimes fear that the Blame Game and Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater have become our two new national sports over footy and cricket.

  6. Excellent points, Robbo, well made.
    The shifty shadow of luck plays such a huge and under-appreciated role in life – in every aspect of it.
    While inquests that result in safe let workplaces have benefited many, it’s difficult to see how the same could occur here, without, as you say, changes to the game.
    Acceptance and tolerable risk are also big parts of life.
    (Crossing the road, driving a car).
    Interesting stuff – vital to consider “what is the purpose of the hearing?”

  7. Keiran Croker says

    Timely piece Robbo and I concur with the comments of all above. I believe there is an absence of understanding of the nature of competitive sport in the approach being taken at the inquest. Some of the same players who would compete their hardest against Phil Hughes in a State game would happily be a team mate in the Test squad the next week. You can compete your hardest without malice.

  8. With all respect to his family and their grief, I wonder what Phil would make of this.

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