Facing bouncers in professional cricket is nothing more than doing a job
A week before the Phillip Hughes tragedy, Zulfiqar Babar was having a torrid time in Dubai in the second Test against New Zealand.
Trent Boult and Tim Southee were bowling short to him on the fourth day of the Test, and Babar’s initial movement was to move out of the line of the ball towards square leg.
He ducked a couple of times, hit one ball for four through mid-off, but in a 10-ball stay he looked uncomfortable.
In the live broadcast commentary box, Ramiz Raja launched a scathing, but predictable, attack on Babar’s constant backing away.
Babar is not as bad a batsman as he was being made out to be, but Raja took his backing away as an affront.
Eventually, it seems Raja was so angered and offended by what he was watching that he accused Babar of cowardice.
This is an old, loathsome trope of cricket, that those batsmen who move out of the way of short balls, or particularly quick ones, are scared.
Raja is not alone as a commentator in world cricket who has called a batsman a coward or disapprovingly implied that a batsman is lacking a certain fortitude.
In sport there is a love of talking blithely about the bravery and courage of its practitioners, which, for me, has always been one of the most uncomfortable aspects of following sport.
For one, bravery is never some easily identifiable, or even definable, trait as often it gets mixed up with some vague and ill-shaped notion of machismo.
More uncomfortably, if we insist on talking of bravery in sports, it means we are also acknowledging the existence in sport of its direct counter – cowardice, which is a far more slippery idea.
Neither have measurable parameters and, worse, they begin to operate in different worlds.
In this world it is brave to stand up, get in line and take hits on the body.
Many may remember the battering Brian Close and John Edrich took on their bodies at Old Trafford in 1976 against the West Indies.
Morne Morkel’s targeting of Michael Clarke in Cape Town this year, which was brutal and beautiful at the same time, is on its way to being lionised in the same manner as the efforts of Close and Edrich.
Many would describe these as brave men, playing brave innings.
I feel deep unease at calling those acts brave, mostly because it means that the opposite acts – of not wanting to get hit, or ducking, or moving away from the line – are taken to be cowardice, as it was that day by Raja, which is ridiculous.
It is not cowardice, it is simply an instinct of self preservation – endemic to about seven billion other beings on this planet.
Facing up to a short ball then hooking it, wearing it, or avoiding it does not say anything obvious about the bravery or cowardice of a person. It says, simply, that the person batting is finding ways to survive and thrive in the duty they have been assigned.
For many, that is, after all, their profession.
Hughes was a professional and his tragic death has not come from a moment when he was being brave or cowardly. He was just doing his job, a job he loved and excelled at, to a level so elite most can only aspire to it.
As a job there is risk involved – there is risk in almost everything we do. In cricket there is perhaps less risk than in other contact sports and more than working in a library.
The death of Phillip Hughes is a tragedy beyond words, but it is not the only death to have occurred on a professional cricket field.
It has been felt deeper and wider than any other, though, because of who Hughes was, because of his youth and because, crucially and awkwardly, we have been able to watch the moment of it, and then grieve immediately, publicly and collectively.
The long-term impact is unmeasurable.
Beyond improving helmet protection and perhaps increasing awareness of on-field care, there is probably not much else. This was death as it is – random.
But, if nothing else, it should force cricket, and sport generally, to rethink how notions of bravery and cowardice are applied to acts on the field of play.
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Published: December 1, 2014 04:00 AM