Playing Hard Ball

I don't really play cricket anymore. The last time I did, in 2011, I batted for quite a long time and then couldn't move properly for several weeks. Not for the first time, my back had gone.

I never say I've retired though. Once I could have been a contender, and I could be again, in my mind anyway.

My brother, though he is nearly ten years older than me, still plays village cricket in Derbyshire. Earlier this year, in the summer, I visited him and spotted a ball - a brand new cherry red ball - lying around in his house. Prompted by me, we went outside on to a large grass area near his house and threw it to each other. We weren't far apart and we didn't throw it very hard.

I grew up with cricket balls. Back when I was young they hadn't invented the sort of soft balls I see kids playing with on the Taunton outfield. There were tennis balls, which we tended to play with in the garden to avoid breakages, and there were what were then called composition balls, which, in truth, weren't much softer than the real thing. They were just cheaper and less responsive.

When I was younger, cricket balls and their hardness never really concerned me. Many's the time, as a dour front-foot prodder of an opening bat, I returned home with garish bruises on my thighs, and my stomach, and one time a pain in my hip bone that took half a year to subside. This time, though, I was struck (both literally and metaphorically) by just how hard a cricket ball is. In comparison with the ball used in virtually any other game, cricket balls are stupidly hard. Dangerously hard. Get hit by one in the wrong place and you could get badly hurt.

I made the comment, only partly in jest, that if someone invented cricket today and made the ball as hard as that, the game would be banned for Health and Safety reasons.

I grew up with other things too. I am old enough to remember Thomson and Lillee terrorising England's batsmen, and I am old enough to remember Michael Holding bowling to the helmetless Brian Close and John Edrich at Old Trafford. I am old enough to remember Peter Lever hitting Ewan Chatfield on the head. I also remember reading that one of Jeff Thomson's mates - Martin Bedkober he was called - had died after being hit in the chest by a cricket ball.

I knew then that cricket balls could kill you, but somehow it didn't really enter my thinking again until this morning, 39 years on, when I heard that Phillip Hughes had died.

Other people had things like this, but they always recovered. Chatfield was nearly killed - his heart stopped - but years later he was still tirelessly running in for the best side that New Zealand ever had. Phil Simmons almost went the same way at Bristol but still had a Test career ahead of him. Michael Schumacher, Jules Bianchi. Nobody knows what state they are in, but they are still alive. It was only boxers who died.

Until today.

Cricket has had days like this before. On hearing the news my mind instantly went back to the time I woke up on a similarly dark November morning and heard that Malcolm Marshall had died. And, later, I thought of the time that I was listening to TMS and heard Christopher Martin-Jenkins say that Ben Hollioake had been killed in a car crash.

This morning seemed a little different, though. Marshall had cancer; car crashes happen all the time, to all kinds of people. An international cricketer had never been killed by a ball before.

Now cricket has Twitter. People from all over the world post messages, montages, pictures, say profound things, say stupid things, say insensitive things. But the feeling is of a community coming together. The world is full of people who know nothing of cricket, and people who think they know enough of cricket to say that they dislike it. But for those of us who are left, no game engenders such loyalty and love, both for the sport itself and for the people who play it.

I hardly saw Phil Hughes bat live. Just his two Lord's Tests, in 2009 and 2013, when he failed as his homespun New South Wales country boy's technique was badly exposed. But I had seen him enough on TV and I had seen enough of his statistics to know that he would probably have come good in time. People always say things like this, but it is true to say that his best years were ahead of him. He was a contender.

Sadly, another thing being middle-aged teaches you is that 25 is no kind of age to die.

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