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Tony Cozier: Sean Abbott can learn from Sir Garfield Sobers

Sir Garry blamed himself for Collie Smith's death in a 1959 car accident. He was so disturbed he took to drinking until he eventually dedicated himself to continue playing for both himself and Smith, writes Tony Cozier

There can't be a cricketer of any generation and of any standard anywhere on the planet who hasn't been devastated by the death of Philip Hughes.

Australia's Sean Abbott bowls during the second T20 against South Africa in Melbourne on November 7. Pic/Getty Images
Australia's Sean Abbott bowls during the second T20 against South Africa in Melbourne on November 7. Pic/Getty Images 

The outpouring of grief after the Australian left-hander died in Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital on Thursday, two days after he was felled by a blow to the left side of the neck from a bouncer in a Sheffield Shield inter-state match, has been universal and heartfelt. In the words of India's Anil Kumble, it has "impacted the cricket world".

The anguish, of course, is more keenly endured in Australia, not simply among those who were teammates and friends for nation and state but in every city, town and outback station across the length and breadth of that vast, prosperous and diverse country.

West Indians of a certain vintage can recall the shock, akin to Hughes' demise, that enveloped the Caribbean after the death of Collie Smith in 1959. Smith was an ebullient entertainer, as universally popular among colleagues and cricket's passionate public as Hughes was half-century later.

Choosing him as one of its cricketers of the year following his standout series in England in 1957, Wisden wrote of Smith: "There is no finer sight than that of a player enjoying his cricket…(his) infectious enthusiasm and huge grin make him such an outstanding personality".

At 26, a year older than Hughes, he was widely rated alongside Garry Sobers as an all-rounder with the potential to develop, as Sobers did, into one of the very best. Smith lost his life when a car driven by Sobers, his close friend, collided with a 20-ton lorry outside the English town of Stoke-on-Trent.

It was far from his native Jamaica and he was not involved in West Indies cricket at the time but rather playing in the Lancashire leagues. It made no difference to the consequent despondency throughout a region where cricket was followed with religious zeal. As with Hughes, all that mattered was that a richly talented young cricketer had his life snuffed out long before its time.

Sobers' response to the incident can be an example for Sean Abbott, the budding New South Wales all-rounder who delivered Hughes' fateful ball.

It's natural
As he acknowledges, Sobers blamed himself for Smith's death, as Abbott might do in Hughes' case; it is a natural reaction. He has said he was so disturbed he took to drinking until he eventually dedicated himself to continue playing for both himself and Smith.

Sir Garfield Sobers
Sir Garfield Sobers 

Even divided by two, Sobers' final record of 8,032 runs with 26 hundreds in 93 Tests at an average of 57.78, along with 235 wickets in three different styles and 109 catches was a reasonable return. There is a further correlation between the accidents that took the lives of Smith and Hughes.

It is precisely that they were accidents, Hughes' described by doctors as "a freak". In the immediate aftermath of Hughes' death, there have been strident calls in some quarters to improve safety. They have extended from the need for better designed helmets to the penalising of bowlers who exceed the limits of two bouncers an over prescribed by the law to the ridiculous extreme of outlawing bouncers altogether.

The reality is that the advent of helmets during World Series Cricket in the late 1970s and the steady improvement in their design along with changes in the laws in relation to bouncers and intimidatory bowling have rendered cricket safer than it has ever been.

The fast bowlers' drag, that allowed them to deliver from as close as 18 yards to the batsman, was eliminated by the introduction of the front foot no-ball rule in the late 1960s. In the 1990s, bouncers were cut to one an over, with an infringement deemed a no-ball; they were subsequently increased to two an over.

The law on "dangerous and unfair" bowling is clear. Its states: "The bowling of fast short pitched balls is dangerous and unfair if the bowler's end umpire considers that, by their repetition and taking into account their length, height and direction, they are likely to inflict physical injury on the striker irrespective of the protective equipment he may be wearing.

The relative skill of the striker shall be taken into consideration." None of the informed reports from the SCG that day Hughes was hit made even the merest mention that this regulation was breached. Undoubtedly it has been on other occasions; it is the responsibility of the umpires to ensure that it isn't.

A stroke of fate
In short, it was a cruel stroke of fate that ended Hughes' innings, and life, at 63 not out as it was Collie Smith's 56 years earlier. There is no guarantee that it won't happen again. Yet, with better protective gear and stricter laws, batsmen are more secure than they have ever been.

West Indian Collie Smith in 1957. The 26-year-old died in a car crash in 1959. Pic/Getty Images
West Indian Collie Smith in 1957. The 26-year-old died in a car crash in 1959. Pic/Getty Images 

So it goes for driving as well. With modern technology, cars have become increasingly safer; motorways and highways have multiplied. Laws have become more stringent.

For all the improvements, every cricketer who fronts up to fast bowling in the middle or hops into a vehicle places himself in some danger; the chance remains that they could be victims of car crashes or damaging blows to the head. Thankfully, fatalities are rare in both cases. To eliminate them altogether is an impossibility.

Tony Cozier continues to be the voice of West Indies cricket 

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