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Phillip Hughes: a personal reflection

by Matt Frost

I'm 34 and I have autism spectrum disorder. It is not an over-the-top statement to say I have loved one sport in particular for 25 years --indeed, it's been a special field of interest for me. That sport is cricket.

I love the tactical and thinking nature of the game and the skill that its best players show, and I value the relationships I've made from it. Cricket has allowed me to develop social relationships with diverse ranges of people who I would never have met otherwise and is an amazingly enriching part of my life.

The sport I love has been deeply rocked this past week. During a high-level domestic match in Australia, a highly-skilled batsman who had played for his country and was looking to do so again, Phillip Hughes, was seriously injured by a ball bowled at him and later died in hospital. The bowler, Sean Abbott, was also skilled and broke no laws of the game when he delivered the ball at Hughes. I think it is very important to stress this. I must say I really liked Phil Hughes' style of play -- he was aggressive and it was clear he loved the game.

Lovers of the game have reacted in all sorts of ways to express how they feel. They have put bats by their doors, they have stopped matches in tribute and they have cried. All of this is really healthy in my view, as I'm pretty sure we have deep cultural expectations that don't allow us to grieve and cry enough and take care of our mental health at times like this.

Phillip Hughes was taken very suddenly and was a sportsman who was fighting hard to be at the top levels of performance. I think that is a major part of people's shock -- the transformation from that state to death was so quick. I do think this is a part of this event we need to acknowledge and was certainly part of what I saw yesterday with my club side -- fit and active young men were being forced to reflect on the fact that one twist of fate in the game they love playing could make them not so fit and active.

That was troubling and caused some reactions that intersected with my work life -- for example I heard more than one player express relief that Hughes wasn't brain-damaged by the ball. As someone who has worked for the rights and lives of people with brain damage and other impairments, that did trouble me slightly -- is death preferable to being impaired?

But I don't judge that comment: the shock of seeing the transformation of Phil Hughes is dramatic and troubling for those who, like me, love the sport. And it should give pause for thought to those who engage in disability work or who are in the disability community. We shouldn't ignore or lighten the challenges and changes that developing an impairment can bring, particularly if sudden.

On questions of mental health, many people have expressed very justified concern for the bowler, Sean Abbott. There is concern that he may never play the game again. I hope that's not the case, although again I wouldn't judge him if he didn't. I also hope that the skilled mental health teams working with Sean Abbott do two things.

Firstly, that they don't minimise the impact on him by saying "you didn't do anything (or not much) wrong". Strictly, that's true -- he broke no laws of the sport. And in fact, if we are being honest, part of the attraction of the sport is the element of contest in it, which includes the bowler using tactics to get the batsman out. That's core to cricket and shouldn't be reduced say by banning the bouncer. But that's not what Sean Abbott's brain is probably telling him. It will be telling him "evidence says you did do something wrong - seriously wrong." I hope he is allowed to feel and process that.

But I also hope they work with him to remind him of the amazing times he has had playing cricket - the skill he showed when he took wickets, the joys he felt when his team won and which he gave to fans, the fun he had which is the reason he plays the game. Those are really valid emotions too and I hope they are reinforced for him.

So where to from here for cricket? People will and absolutely should continue to play and love the game - that's what Phillip Hughes would have wanted above all else.

I think a possible answer lies in two things. The first is the reaction of the cricket community all around the world. Its genuine sense of togetherness and care gives me a massive pride and sense of hope for the game. The second thing is connected to this.

When the Laws of the Game were being rewritten coming up to 2000, the administration of cricket made what I think was a hugely wise decision. They decided to articulate what they felt the Spirit of Cricket was and to ensure it was the first thing in the Laws. The Spirit starts like this.

"Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself."

I have seen plenty of this spirit yesterday and ever since the news came through about Phil Hughes. That is why I hope parents of young kids who want to play cricket don't stop them from doing so - what happened could not have been prevented and shouldn't stop future generations taking up and loving the sport.

But it has also made me think about something else. What's the spirit in which we engage with questions around disability? We talk about values a lot in our sector, but I'm thinking after what I've seen in the last few days that spirit is something different. Here is not the place to answer that question but I do think it's a valid one for our community. Here is the place to say that the spirit that the cricket community (players, officials, fans of the game) has shown demonstrates its character. It's that which I hope will continue to be the greatest legacy of Philip Hughes and it will be the way I will try and remember him - by continuing to try (as hard as it can be sometimes) to play this game called life with spirit.

RIP Phillip Hughes 1988-2014. "Baggy Cap 408" 63 not out.


Matt Frost is as a senior advisor at the Office for Disability Issues. This blog is a personal work and does not represent the Office.

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