Tragic death of Phillip Hughes triggers memories of Nari Contractor

Phillip Hughes image rediff.com

The tragic death of Phillip Hughes has triggered some discussion about safety and the design of helmets. But I am not sure that this is the right discussion to have. Hughes was hit on the top of his neck, behind his ear but just below his helmet. He was hooking and had hooked a little early so that he was almost facing long leg at the moment of impact.

I know first hand just how hard a cricket ball is. Forty years ago I was hit on the head by a cricket ball while playing a club match in Birmingham. It was not the bowler in this case and I was not wearing a helmet. I was running between the wickets and the ball was thrown in by a fielder and caught me on the top of my skull – a little forward of centre. Apparently I just crumpled to the ground but came to a few minutes later. I was kept in hospital for a few hours for observation but fortunately suffered only a mild concussion. But I am told that if the point of impact had been an inch further forward or an inch further back, the result could have been far more serious.

Nari Contractor image sportskeeda.com

But after the Phillip Hughes accident, what comes to my mind is not my little accident but the Charlie Griffith bouncer which caught Nari Contractor on the back of his skull in March 1962. Like Hughes, Contractor was a left-hand bat. This was 52 years ago when as a schoolboy avidly following the tour of the West Indies, I was up at all hours listening to the live radio commentary whenever I could. Helmets were not in use in 1962. India were playing Barbados between the second and third Test matches. Contractor was leading the side after a series win against England and he opened the innings with Dilip Sardesai. Contractor seems to have turned his head due to some distraction from the pavilion. But he was, like Hughes, facing sideways with the back of his head exposed at the time of impact. He suffered a fractured skull and was unconscious for 6 days.  A neuro-surgeon had to be flown in from Trinidad and he went some 24 hours – unconscious – before proper medical treatment began. He needed a blood transfusion and Sir Frank Worrell – the West Indies captain but who was only a spectator at this match – was the first to donate blood. Later Contractor had to have a metal plate inserted for the fracture. He survived and went on to play first class cricket but never again played a Test match.

Contractor is now 80 and spoke about the Hughes accident to the Mumbai Mirror:

“I am not sure if any technology or better technology can prevent such injuries. My injury took place in 1962 and it has taken 52 years for another such injury. You cannot ensure anything in cricket.”

I do agree that safety and safety standards should be reviewed. But without trying in any way to minimise the tragedy of Phillip Hughes demise, it is nether opportune or appropriate, I think, for any knee-jerk reactions.

My point is that all rules for safety or safety equipment are inextricably linked to the skills of the game. Every new rule or new piece of equipment suppresses some skills and encourages others. There is nothing wrong with that of course but it does change the game. There is little doubt that the advent of helmets and chest pads has suppressed the skill of weaving and dodging to avoid being hit by the ball while not taking your eyes off it. On the other hand the use of helmets and other protection has allowed the hook shot – among other shots –  to be played much more confidently and – for the best players –  has led to the development of new skills of shot making. Shot making has never been as inventive as today (to the chagrin of many bowlers) and this is partly due to the lower level of physical risk perceived by the batsmen. For the less skilled players, it could be argued, it has led to a greater proportion of injudicious shot selections because the downside is low. More players try to hook today and fail – but it is safer to do so. The balance between “avoidance” and “playing the shot” is different to that when there were no helmets. The skill of “avoidance” is needed less and is therefore less well developed.

Phillip Hughes was certainly one of the better players of the game. But the game today is not the same game as it was in 1962 when Nari Contractor suffered his injury. But would a player of the 1962 game, brought up without the use of helmets, make the same shot selection that Phillip Hughes did? It is impossible to know but the 1962 batsman would surely have had a different background of risk assessment and a different basis for selecting when to play the hook shot and when to avoid the ball.

Changing the risk level in any game changes the game. But – lest we forget – without risk there is no game.

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2 Responses to “Tragic death of Phillip Hughes triggers memories of Nari Contractor”

  1. Ben Says:

    Glad to note that you survived your head injury despite the smart fielder trying to run you out !
    You have a valid point in that this type of injury was rare – both Nari Contractor & Phil Hughes had completed the stroke early and pivoted to expose a vulnerable area with tragic consequences in Phil Hughes situation.I feel that further research needs to be carried out as we all do not wish to see such tragic injury on the cricket field.

  2. ktwop Says:

    Yesterday an Israeli cricket umpire died after being hit by a ball.
    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30260842
    “Witnesses say a fast delivery by the bowler came off the batsman’s bat, striking the wicket and then the man.”
    5 years ago an umpire in Wales was killed after being struck on the head by a ball thrown in by a fielder.
    Freak accidents do happen.
    But my point is also that all changes for safety reasons, change the risk environment and then also change the skill set needed to play the game.

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