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Hughes's tragic death brings back bad memories

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The death of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes from a head injury sustained while playing has shaken the sport to its core. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

The death of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes from a head injury sustained while playing has shaken the sport to its core. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Getty Images

The death of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes from a head injury sustained while playing has shaken the sport to its core. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Sitting on the desk in front me, there is nothing in the cricket ball that suggests it could be a lethal weapon. It's a lot harder than a sliotar, but not as hard as a hockey ball.

It weighs just 5.75oz and is made up of cork wrapped in leather and cord, and lacquered to a shiny red finish. But while hurlers or hockey players strike the ball towards a goal, in cricket the ball is hurled in the general direction of an opponent with the primary aim of knocking over the wicket. If the batsman standing beside it gets in the way, then so be it as the game allows plenty of protection, with padding for hands, arms, chest, groin and legs and - for the last 40 years - helmets.

On Tuesday afternoon, a young Australian batsman was battling hard for his career. Phillip Hughes had been in and out of the Test side for five years. His technique was found out on two tours of England but he was tipped to regain his place for the series against India.

Playing for New South Wales, and with his score on 63, he received a short delivery from fast-medium bowler Sean Abbott. It reared up to arrive at him at head height. He had shaped to pull it across his body but missed and the ball struck him in the neck below the ear. The blow compressed and split his vertebral artery, bleeding into his brain.

Such an injury is usually fatal but despite the fast action of a spectating doctor and club staff, which gave Hughes a chance of survival, he passed away two days later.

News of the initial injury sent a chill down the spine of Jacent Simmons, wife of Ireland coach Phil. "My wife called me as soon as it happened," he said from Dubai where he is in training camp with Ireland. "He is the same age as I was, with the same name."

Simmons suffered a similar blow in a tour game for West Indies against Gloucestershire in 1988 and underwent life-saving surgery. "My injury was as serious as you can get. I had to have emergency surgery to have a clot removed from my brain," he recalled. "I was written off as never to play again and put in a long-term unit for head injuries, but I was out in eight days."

Many cricketers have fallen prey to serious injury, even death - and even in Ireland. Edwin Wade, 23, a visitor from England, was playing on the Parsonstown Estate, Co Meath, in 1891. A ball glanced off his bat and hit him on the temple, killing him. Philip Pinkney, 15, was killed during a match on Spike Island in 1909. Other deaths were recorded in Waterford, Slane and Dublin.

Ireland batsman Niall O'Brien still remembers being hit on the helmet by a bouncer in 2004. He was playing for Kent at the time and the ball hit where the peak meets the grille. "I was in hospital for two days and still have a scar over my right eyebrow," he said last week. "A fraction lower and I could have been blinded and my career over."

O'Brien later witnessed two such career-ending injuries when a South African paceman "sconed" Test players Craig Spearman and Shaun Udal.

"As a cricketer you see people hit on the head all the time. Never do you think this can happen, not these days with the protection," Gary Wilson commented last week.

One of Hughes' team-mates, Brett Lee, got involved in an ill-advised publicity stunt last winter. TV host Piers Morgan, a less-than-competent batsman, was subjected to Lee's full arsenal and was lucky to escape with bruises.

New Zealand legend Richard Hadlee had a go at Lee. "I only hope that Brett takes a few minutes to reflect on his stupidity - it was a deliberate attempt to hit, injure, hurt and maim his opponent," he wrote. "If [Morgan] was hit on the head or across the heart, the result could have been devastating."

Hadlee may be more sensitive than most as a former team-mate of Ewen Chatfield, who nearly died in a New Zealand v England Test in 1975. Debutant Chatfield deflected a short ball from his gloves on to his helmet-less head, causing a hairline fracture. He swallowed his tongue and his heart stopped, and only swift action by a physio saved his life.

Raman Lamba wasn't so lucky. The Indian played with North Down for more than a decade and four times for Ireland. In 1998, playing in Bangladesh, he was hit on the temple while fielding, slipped into a coma and died three days later.

And now Sean Abbott, who must live with the terrible consequences of something joyful and innocent he does every single day. In that terrible split-second in Sydney, there were two victims.

Sunday Indo Sport