THIS has been the saddest week in what surely rates as the saddest year this lifelong sports fan can remember.
Until Tuesday, I would have assumed the life-changing tackle on Alex McKinnon in March was unsurpassable as the most harrowing image of 2014.
Then came the fateful bouncer – one of thousands he would have faced in his career – that ended the life of Phillip Hughes and left a nation in mourning.
At times like these, it is almost impossible to come up with words that do the situation justice.
But for what it’s worth, here are a few random thoughts.
Firstly, having observed the heart-breaking scenes of Hughes’ teammates at the SCG and St Vincent’s Hospital, I found myself reflecting on the Newcastle Knights and the devastating injury McKinnon suffered against Melbourne at AAMI Park.
Cricket officials rightly realised that Sheffield Shield players were in no state to be competing and games were immediately called off.
Yet there was no such luxury for the Knights.
They not only had to back up six days after McKinnon suffered a broken neck, but actually had to finish the game in which he was injured.
With the benefit of hindsight, what they were expected to endure was almost unbelievable.
Unlike Hughes, McKinnon was not killed playing the sport he loved. But his life was transformed in a split second, and for his teammates it must have been incredibly traumatic.
Despite their grief, the show apparently had to go on. There was no suggestion from NRL officials that the Knights would be given a week or two off to compose themselves and resume playing.
It could perhaps be argued that, when McKinnon was taken from the field on a stretcher, nobody knew how severe his injury was.
But his teammates were aware he was unable to move and must have been shocked by the whole situation.
Somehow Newcastle’s players soldiered on. Remarkably they staged a brave fightback against the Storm, before losing 28-20, and then thrashed the Sharks 30-0 the following week.
But the ‘‘do it for Alex’’ emotion could last only so long.
It was unrealistic to expect the Knights to proceed as if it was business as usual.
For them to finish the season as strongly as they did was a courageous effort in its own right.
They might not have reached the finals, but what team would have, given the circumstances?
On to random thought No.2.
Has the culture of cricket changed forever?
Since Jeff Thomson famously declared he liked to see ‘‘blood on the wicket’’ almost 40 years ago, bowlers capable of terrorising batsmen with short-pitched deliveries have been hailed as heroes – as was the case with Mitchell Johnson in last summer’s Ashes.
If a batsman got hit, the crowd would cheer, fieldsmen would applaud, and the bowler would often follow up with a few choice words. But, after the death of Hughes, is such aggression still appropriate?
Cricket was once considered a gentleman’s game. Perhaps it is time for players at all levels to consider the spirit in which cricket is played.
Random thought No.3.
Phillip Hughes would have become one of the all-time greats, of that I have no doubt.
Sadly, he will never be able to improve on his average of 32.65 after 26 Tests. But if not for his tragic accident, I am confident he would have played for Australia for another 10 years and scored at least 20 Test centuries.
As I wrote in 2011, after he had been dropped from the national team: ‘‘The critics might be preoccupied with his shortcomings and the technical reasons for his repeated failures.
‘‘But what they seem to have forgotten is how on earth Hughes got to this level if he is indeed such a flawed commodity.
‘‘Countless players have become Test regulars with copybook, classical techniques. Very few have done so with as many glaring issues as Hughes.
‘‘And I don’t remember any who have burst on the Test scene, barely aged 20, with such a spectacular impact ... Hughes will be back.
‘‘The talent that got him into the Test team, against all the odds, will make sure of that.
‘‘Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn and even Ricky Ponting have all been down the same path.
‘‘Hughes will do likewise.’’
Tragically, he will never have the chance to prove me right.
RIP, Phillip Hughes. Sometimes life is so unfair.
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