ANALYSIS: Phil Hughes' death is a major test for world cricket

Australia's Phil Hughes celebrates reaching his century as Sri Lanka's Jeevan Mendis (left) looks on during the one-day international cricket match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground Jan 11, 2013. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Australia's Phil Hughes celebrates reaching his century as Sri Lanka's Jeevan Mendis (left) looks on during the one-day international cricket match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground Jan 11, 2013. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Perhaps because international cricket was originally played only by men and the non-contact sport with its fair share of serious injuries placed such a high premium on guts, bravery or intestinal fortitude, it is incomprehensible to note that several generations of players protected their groins but not their heads.

The death this afternoon of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes, critically inured on Tuesday during a Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) represents a watershed for the sport. Despite advances in both helmet technology and medical science, cricket must now decide how to protect not just the skulls of players, but their lives as well.

Even before the announcement of the cricketer's death in the same week he was being considered to replace injured Australian captain Michael Clarke in the Test side, the Hughes case was already a watershed for the multi-billion dollar sport.

Even while Hughes' life hung in the balance, there was instant recognition of just how significant the on-field injury was. First, the game was abandoned and the entire round of Shield games cancelled. Second, and more significantly, counselling was offered to the players on both sides in the match in question.

There is something else to consider. Legally, this might not be classified as a work-safety accident that contributed to death, but Hughes, 25, who played 26 Tests for Australia, was a professional cricketer and can therefore be considered to have been at his workplace when he sustained the ultimately fatal injury.

This tragedy, the most serious in contemporary cricket, adds to the pattern of traumatic head injuries suffered by international sportsmen in different pursuits in the past 12 months. Think Michael Schumacher in France and Jules Bianchi in Japan.

Hughes' death places the game's recent and chequered history of protective measures in sharp perspective.

Inexplicably, it took more than a century before cricket gradually - and extremely grudgingly - embraced the idea of protecting players' heads. The first international game was played in 1877 between England and Australia, yet it was not until after the 1977 Centenary Test between those two countries that serious debate began on the vexed question of protective headgear.

Tellingly, it was top-order Test batsmen - not tailenders with suspect technique that made them vulnerable against fast bowlers and steepling deliveries - who made the first controversial foray into using helmets in international cricket.

England's Dennis Amiss, now 71, who played 50 Tests and scored 11 centuries, was at the forefront of the safety revolution. Before the breakaway World Series Cricket (WSC) tournaments got under way in 1977, the opening batsman renowned for his courage began using a customised motorcycle helmet.

As The Telegraph once reported, Amiss sought out a company that manufactured helmets worn by motorcyclists and negotiated the creation of a lightweight model with a visor "that could withstand a shotgun blast at 10 yards".

England captain Tony Greig, the towering 198cm South Africa-born Test cricketer who was a major recruiter for WSC and who died in 2012 aged 66, was also a founder member of the white motorcycle helmet brigade.

Australian captain Graham Yallop, who played 39 Tests and scored eight centuries, made history when he became the first cricketer to wear a helmet in a Test match. But when he walked out to the crease at Barbados in March 1978, the reaction was not encouraging. Yallop, now 62, was booed by spectators for his safety-first approach.

Mohinder Amarnath, now 64, stepped back in time to find advancement in cricketing safety. The man who was one of Wisden's cricketers of the year in 1984 and who played 69 Tests with 11 hundreds, made his own notable contribution to cranial protection.

He once raised eyebrows in the late Seventes when he raided the cupboards in the home of his father Lala, a former Indian Test captain. The son, a fearless hooker of the rising ball despite being repeatedly injured in the process, borrowed his father's tropical pith helmet, a colonial-era relic, to don at the crease during a Test match.

Injuries suffered by batsmen at the crease rarely - if ever - carry any levity. But the late Australian David Hookes who died in 2004 aged 48, had his jaw broken by a bouncer from West Indies fast bowler Andy Roberts during a WSC match. The way he narrated the incident, he was then driven to hospital not in an ambulance but by none other than Channel Nine boss Kerry Packer, the man behind the WSC revolution. Tongue in cheek, he said Packer's driving was even more scary than Roberts' fearsome bowling.

The Hookes incident and today's death of Hughes form a book-end for the helmet debate. The Hookes injury was a catalyst for wider acceptance of helmets, while the Hughes tragedy must usher in the next era of heightened safety.

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