Inquest finds nobody was to blame for death of Phillip Hughes

Australian Test cricketer died after being hit by a Sean Abbott bouncer in November 2014

An inquest has found nobody was to blame for the death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes in 2014. Photograph: Getty

An inquest has found nobody was to blame for the death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes in 2014. Photograph: Getty

 

No one was to blame for the death of Phillip Hughes, the Australian Test cricketer who died after being hit by a short-pitched ball during a match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, an inquest has found.

But Michael Barnes, the New South Wales coroner, delivering his verdict, made a series of recommendations to improve medical response procedure at cricket grounds in the wake of the Hughes’s death and invited players to reflect on whether the “unsavoury” practice of sledging was worthy of “such a beautiful game”.

Hughes died in St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney on November 27th 2014, two days after he was hit by a delivery from New South Wales bowler Sean Abbott at the Sydney Cricket Ground. After being hit, Hughes never regained consciousness.

Barnes said there was “no doubt” Hughes had been targeted with “bouncers” before he was felled but believed that due to the technical skill and ability of the player Hughes was equipped to deal with such bowling.

Barnes found that “no failure to enforce the laws of the game contributed to his death” and that “neither the bowler nor anyone else was to blame for this tragic outcome”.

After much of the inquest was taken up by disputed accounts of whether Hughes had been subjected to “sledging” during the match, the coroner said it was “difficult to accept” that there had been no sledging during the game – a finding which ran counter to the sworn testimony offered by several players present on the day. But he added that whether there was sledging or not, it did not affect Hughes’s capacity to deal with short-pitched bowling.

Barnes found that any alleged sledges “did not affect Phillip’s composure so as to undermine his capacity to defend himself against short-pitched, high bouncing bowling and so the threats could not be implicated in his death”.

He invited “those who claim to love the game to reflect upon whether the practice of sledging is worthy of its participants. An outsider is left to wonder why such a beautiful game would need such an ugly underside.”

The coroner concluded a “minuscule misjudgment” by Hughes from a high-bouncing ball led to his death.

“A minuscule misjudgment or a slight error of execution caused him to miss the ball which crashed into his neck with fatal consequences … There was no suggestion the ball was bowled with malicious intent. Neither the bowler nor anyone else was to blame for the tragic outcome,” Barnes said on Friday.

The coroner recommended that Cricket Australia continue its collaboration with helmet manufacturers with a view to providing a neck protector that can be mandated at all first-class matches, but concluded that in this particular instance even if Hughes had been wearing a more modern helmet there is no evidence it would have saved him.

Hughes was playing for South Australia in a Sheffield Shield match. He died three days before his 26th birthday.

The verdict follows an emotionally-charged five-day inquest in Sydney last month where Hughes’s family made clear their anger at some of the statements made in court.

The family’s QC, Greg Melick, said the testimony given by cricketers who had been playing at the match was unreliable.

When Bruce Hodgkinson, counsel for Cricket Australia, offered his final submission, in which he asked the state coroner not to be swayed by “unsworn and unsubstantiated evidence”, Hughes’s parents Greg and Virginia walked out.

His siblings, Megan and Jason, laughed derisively at Hodgkinson’s assertion that “bonds of mateship were on display from the moment Phillip was injured”.

Melick told the court there was a plan including sledging and short balls aimed at Hughes.

The coroner said that Hughes’s family were concerned “that because he batted so successfully throughout the morning session of play, a plan was devised to try and intimidate Phillip with short pitched balls bouncing near his head and upper body”.

But he added: “As all of the evidence about how Phillip was batting on that afternoon indicated he was not intimidated or unsettled – on the contrary he seems to have been batting very comfortably - there was no need to try and resolve the conflict in the evidence about what may have been said. It is apparent that even were the threat made, it had no effect on Phillip.”

Melick had contended that evidence from retired Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and Australian vice captain David Warner that there was no sledging at all on the day “beggars belief”.

Cricketer Matthew Day, a friend of Hughes said the fast bowler Doug Bollinger had told him later of his exchanges with Hughes: “One of my sledges was ‘I am going to kill you’. I can’t believe I said that. I’ve said things like that in the past but I am never going to say it again.”

Bollinger said he believed in his “heart of hearts” he had not said he had sledged Hughes in that way.

During the inquest the court heard Abbott bowled nine straight short balls to Hughes, including the fatal delivery. During his innings Hughes faced 10 bouncers in 29 overs before lunch, and another 10 bouncers in 19 overs after lunch.

“There is no doubt Phillip was targeted with this type of bowling. Of the 23 ‘bouncers’ bowled on that day, 20 were bowled to him,” the coroner said on Friday.

Hughes had progressed to 63 when he was hit. “Immediately following the blow he stepped to the side of the pitch and bent over, head down, and then placed both hands on his knees. Other players approached him, and after only a matter of a couple of seconds he fell to the ground making no attempt to break his fall, apparently unconscious. The bowler Sean Abbott, the wicket keeper Brad Haddin and others immediately ran towards Phillip to render assistance. The players and both umpires beckoned to the dressing rooms for assistance,” the coroner said.

Neurosurgeon Prof Brian Owler, a former president of the Australian Medical Association, told the inquest there was “no intervention, no matter how early, that could have been performed to avoid [HUGHES’S]death.”

The coroner said it took six minutes to call an ambulance for Hughes, and that no one knew how to summon medical assistance when he was struck.

He recommended Cricket Australia review its procedures to iron out anomalies in its emergency response procedure and morning medical briefings practice, specifically addressing why it was the person who placed the 000 phone call had been unable to offer sufficient information as to the player’s immediate status, and inconsistent instructions as to how to access the ground.

Hughes, an opening batsman, played in 26 Tests and 25 one day internationals.

His immediate family were not in the courtroom to hear the verdict, but it is understood his aunt was present for the findings.

The coroner said: “Phillip Hughes was highly regarded throughout the cricket world as a very talented player. But of course, he was much more than just a cricketer: he was a loyal friend and a loveable bloke who is missed by many. He was a treasured member of a very close and supportive family who continue to grieve his loss deeply. I offer his family and friends sincere condolences for their terrible loss.”

(Guardian service)

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