The Hughes inquest: assessing the risks.

For those of us who have enjoyed playing the game of cricket at a competitive level, the questions at the Hughes Coronial Inquest may appear unhelpful or undiscerning. The issue of sledging was a main line of inquiry over its first two days. Players were asked if Hughes was “targeted in any ungentlemanly way.” Questions were put as to the number of bouncers bowled that fateful day.

Of course, a certain amount of competitive aggression, within limits, is to be expected on a cricket field. Many a sport brings a duo into face-to-face confrontation. For chess, despite it’s intensity, only pride and sensibilities are at risk of being damaged. Yet in cricket, its volatile ball movement lends itself to a physically challenging environment. When the bowler lands a telling bruise on the batsman’s rib-cage, he knows that he’s claimed a minor, momentary victory.

It is sportsmanship which demands we aim to bring out the best in our opponent. Those of us brought up in the cricketing tradition know its boundaries, which include that a batsman be tested in his nerve as well as his skill, in what can be a hostile setting. Words, sometimes subtle, often unnecessary, may become part of the exchange. “It’s all part of the game” is our visceral cry.

But it’s also necessary for the Coroner, following due process, to determine what happened and possibly make recommendations in the interests of public safety. An incredibly talented young man has been taken from us suddenly. We cannot avoid opening the situation to all angles of ‘outsider-like’ questioning. It may just be enlightening.

Whether it’s soccer (a supposedly non-contact sport, though professionals have died while playing), cricket, Australian rules football, open water swimming, skydiving, or whatever sport, there have been casualties and there will always be some element of danger. Base jumpers are currently in a process simply to have their sport legalised in Australia. And with the assessment of risks comes an obligation from officials and rule makers of any sport to minimise the dangers.

But life is risky, and sport is a great activity for learning to overcome your fears.

Whenever a hard ball is used, cricket is an intimidating sport. It has always been so.

As an ordinary nine or ten-year-old kid, what do you do when the fastest eleven-year-old bowler in the district unexpectedly turns up at cricket training? Do you pad up, and take your turn at bat?

Such risk assessment is learned time and time again, all the way up to the highest professional levels. And character is developed through it.

I remember once seeing an Indian team on the rise playing Steve Waugh’s Australian team in a Test match at the MCG. After dismissing the Australians, they had to face half an hour of fast, intimidating bowling before stumps. The Indians first lost one, then the other of their opening pair with only a few overs before stumps. The normal wisdom would have been to send in the night watchman.

Yet to most people’s surprise, the team captain and regular number four batsman appeared from the dressing room ready to stand and face the music. In a cauldron of frenzied noise and hostility, Sourav Ganguly walked to the crease as coolly as if going for a stroll in the Botanic Gardens. To a cacophony of 30,000 home fans all thunderously clapping in unison as the fast bowler approached the crease, the Indian leader calmly played out the remaining overs as if he was patting a tennis ball. That the dangers were real was highlighted by Ganguly retiring hurt in the next morning’s play after being struck on the back of the helmet by a Brad Williams fast ball.

It might not have been an extraordinary accomplishment for inclusion in the records, but that evening I witnessed an exemplary display of controlled courage in the face of physical confrontation.

A few years before, in a suburban park game, I was the night watchman sent in to deal with the last few overs of the day. With the wicket-keeper and slips standing back the best part of twenty metres, and fielders in close on the leg side, the situation was intimidating – and designed to be so. But after being hit in the face by a fast rising delivery, all fielders rushed in to pick me up off the ground to see if I was okay. Both teams gathered around in camaraderie, offering medical advice.

They figured I was okay, appointed someone to drive me to the hospital for a precautionary X-ray, and kept playing. From the car as they drove me away, I saw our regular number four struggle to bat down another head-high delivery. There was no relent, but there was understanding and camaraderie. We weren’t at war, but we were courageous (or trying to be). The bowling team seemed pleased to see me return to finish my innings the next Saturday; happy that I avoided any real damage.

Can there be a reason to explain the difference between my favourable fate and that of Phil Hughes?

In Sheffield Shield matches, there are experienced umpires, medics on stand-by, and access to the latest protective equipment. My park game might not have had all of these, but essentially the traditions we were following were the same as for a Shield game. The cricket was hard but played within its limits. Both teams were doing something they loved. The difference was but that of providence.

This week’s coronial inquest might make certain recommendations, but it can’t make judgements over providence. That lies in the hands of the Almighty.

It’s impossible to outlaw danger from sport, as if we could live life without risks. And I think those of the Coroner’s Court are wise enough to realise this.

The laws of cricket might be subject to a minor ripple or tweak, but the essence of the game cannot be changed. It’s bat against ball, thrust and parry; a test of courage.


About Michael Viljoen

Michael was born in the Nelson Mandela Bay area, the same as Siya Kolisi, the successful World Cup winning Springbok captain, but was raised in Melbourne with a love for Australian Rules. He has worked as a linguist in Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, where he wrote a booklet on the history of Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, which was translated into several Cameroonian languages.


  1. G’day Michael,
    Gosh. That’s a terrible event you describe.

    it’s a big question – this “Can there be a reason to explain the difference between my favourable fate and that of Phil Hughes?” It could even be an existential question, if you think that way.

    Like Sam Pickles of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, my life has led me in the direction of respect for the shifty shadow of luck.
    In my view, it accounts for so much.
    C’est la vie.

  2. Great article. I remember going into bat against a former county bowler, and it was exhilarating to trying to face up to really fast bowling, beyond what I had ever done or will ever do. To get a couple runs was a bonus. I also broke a collar bone as keeper one time, and a swollen lip when fielding bravely in close ( all future close in fielding featured a helmet) . There is combination of bravery and risk assessment and skill.
    In regards to the inquest, part of me wishes it was behind closed doors and to report general findings. No one could foresee what happened to Hughes, and it would be good to learn rather than finger point individuals.

  3. The whole episode leading to the tragic death of Phil Hughes has been a nightmare unravelling. I have found the coronial inquest particularly troubling with its focus on sledging, he said, no he didn’t, etc line of questioning/replying

    To me the cricket the workplace and the safety of those participating on it rests on the shoulders of the organisation overseeing them. The NSWCA should be responsible for the safety of all those on/at the SCG, the SACA has a responsibility re the provision of protective gear to its players, in this case specifically helmets. So when we talk about risk let’s look at it in the context of workplace safety: OH&S.

    A hazard is something in the workplace that has the potential to harm some one. A cricket ball may be deemed a hazard. A risk is when it’s possible the hazard may cause harm. One may surmise a cricket ball may be a hazard, thus if it’s pitched short and fast, and the batsmen’s helmet is not appropriate, nor is there access to required medical support the risk increases many times.

    This sadly seems the case in this tragedy.


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