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Phillip Hughes inquest told 'no intervention' could have saved cricketer's life

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10-10-2016 Ben Doherty
Virginia and Greg Hughes, the parents of cricketer Phillip Hughes © AAP Virginia and Greg Hughes, the parents of cricketer Phillip Hughes

There was nothing that could have been done to save Phillip Hughes after he was hit in the neck by a ball as he batted in a Sheffield Shield match two years ago, a coronial inquest into his death has heard.

The 25-year-old former Test batsman, on the verge of a recall to the national side, was struck by a bouncer from the New South Wales paceman Sean Abbott as he batted for South Australia on the afternoon of 25 November 2014.

In footage of the delivert played before the state coroner Michael Barnes yesterday, Hughes attempts to hook the ball but misses and is struck on the left side of his neck. In the aftermath, he leans forward with his hands on his knees, before collapsing forward without making any attempt to break his fall.

Hughes never recovered consciousness and died two days later at St Vincent’s hospital.

Prof Brian Owler, a neurosurgeon and the former head of the Australian Medical Association, reviewed the injury that led to Hughes’s death, as well as the postmortem results, and concluded: “No intervention, no matter how early, that could have been performed to avoid his death.”

Owler said the medical treatment Hughes received was “timely and appropriate”.

Hughes suffered a vertebral artery dissection leading to a subarachnoid haemorrhage that occurred after the ball struck him in the neck. He was wearing a helmet at the time but the blow to his unprotected neck forced his head to move violently in relation to his neck, causing the dissection and a massive haemorrhage of blood into his brain.

A Cricket Australia review found the helmet Hughes was wearing did not meet newly introduced British safety standards but that the newer helmet would not have saved him.

The weeklong coronial inquest will consider whether any protective equipment – including the “StemGuard” neck protector additions to helmets since introduced and widely worn – might contribute to preventing such injuries.

Hughes’s family – his parents, Greg and Virginia, and his siblings, Jason and Megan – were at the opening morning of the coronial inquest.

Speaking outside Sydney’s Downing Centre court complex, Hughes’s former manager James Henderson asked that the family be given privacy.

“This is going to be a very, very, very difficult week for Greg, Virginia, Jason and Megan,” he said. “They’re hoping that perhaps there will be a positive come out of Phillip’s death as we go through this next five days inside the coroner’s court.”

Barnes offered his condolences to Hughes’s family, saying the 25-year-old was “much more than a fabulous cricketer”. “He was, before anything else, a son and a brother.”

Barnes said the purpose of the inquest was not to lay blame for Hughes’s death. “Quite clearly the death was a terrible accident but that doesn’t mean cricket can’t be made safer.”

The inquest will investigate the specific cause and manner of Hughes’s death, as well as its broader context.

In statements to the coroner, the umpires said play at the SCG that day had been in good spirits and that there was no noticeable aggression or acts of sledging that had concerned officials. No bowlers had been warned for dangerous or unfair bowling, or for continually bowling short at batsmen.

The inquest heard that while it was a tactic to bowl short to Hughes, it was not done with the aim of injuring him but in order to get him out.

In a statement, the NSW captain Brad Haddin, who was wicket-keeping when Hughes was struck, said “at lunch, there was a discussion about the plan get Phil to nick the ball by moving his feet” but that the tactic was “more of a field placement change than a bowling change”.

A longtime state and Australian teammate of Hughes’s, Haddin appeared before the inquest on Monday, saying the incident had been terrible to watch.

“It was like something I’ve never, ever witnessed before in my life when he fell down,” he said. “It was the noise that he let out, the groan, and the way that he fell straight down motionless without trying to break his fall.”

Simon Taufel, the former international umpire and umpiring expert, reviewed the entire day’s play and, in a report, said there had been 23 bouncers bowled for the afternoon, an unremarkable number. He said the umpires had firm control of the match and he witnessed nothing untoward in the leadup to Hughes’s death.

“Phillip was mostly playing the short deliveries with relative ease, either ducking underneath them, or hitting them for runs.”

Players also reported in statements that they did not believe there was any targeting of Hughes by bowlers that day, that there was no warning from the umpires about short-pitched bowling and no recollection of specific sledging targeted at Hughes.

The inquest heard from witness Detective Senior Constable Jay Tonkin that he had been told by Hughes’s brother Jason that the NSW fast bowler Doug Bollinger had allegedly threatened Hughes and his batting partner Tom Cooper, saying: “I’m going to kill you.”

Tonkin said he had been told by Jason Hughes (who was not playing in the match) that Bollinger had directed the comment towards both batsman during the day’s play.

“Jason informed me that he’d been told that,” Tonkin said, telling the inquest that Jason Hughes learned of the alleged comments two days later.

But none of the players on the field that day remember those words being said.

Under cross-examination, Haddin was asked about Bollinger’s alleged remark. “I didn’t hear anything,” he said.

Bollinger himself took the stand and denied having threatened or sledged Hughes. “I know I didn’t sledge Phil on that day,” he said.

He said there was no specific plan to bowl short to Hughes, but that short-pitched bowling was a legitimate tactic to dismiss batsmen. “You can bowl two bouncers an over and that’s how I bowl.”

The inquest will also address the ambulance response time and protocols for medical emergencies during Sheffield Shield games. The ambulance was delayed in reaching Hughes because of confusion over where at the SCG the ambulance should attend.

In May, Cricket Australia released an independent report into the batman’s death that recommended helmets be made mandatory for batsman in first-class matches facing medium or fast bowing, and for fielders close to the pitch.

In that review, the Australian Bar Association president, David Curtain SC, found Hughes received appropriate medical attention after being struck until the ambulance arrived.

The helmet Hughes was wearing that day met Australian standards but not the latest British standard. However, the newer model helmet would not have saved Hughes, Curtain found.

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