SYDNEY (Reuters) - The cricket world was in mourning on Thursday following the death of Australian batsman Phillip Hughes, who died in a Sydney hospital, two days after being hit in the head by a ball.
A game that is synonymous with the values of fair play and sportsmanship was left heartbroken at the loss of one its favourite sons, a kid from a banana plantation who dared to dream big.
That he died surrounded by his family and friends after being injured playing the game he loved, provided little solace to the millions of people that follow cricket.
“It’s an understatement to say we’re completely devastated,” Cricket Australia boss James Sutherland told reporters.
“The word tragedy gets used too often in sport, but this freak accident is a real life tragedy.”
Australia’s pain was shared by the cricketing world. Cricket, perhaps more than most other sports, is played by a tight-knit community.
Only a handful of countries play the game professionally and opposing players spend months together, often dining and drinking together after matches.
Rarely has cricket been more united than now, the game’s saddest day.
Overwhelmed by emotion, Australia’s players were in tears as they filed out of St Vincent’s hospital after bidding farewell to their fallen team mate.
The Indian team, currently on tour in Australia, cancelled their two-day practice match that was due to start on Friday. In Dubai, Pakistan and New Zealand aborted the second day of their test match, the players too distraught to take the field.
At Lord’s, the traditional home of cricket, flags were flown at half mast, a tribute that was replicated at stadiums around the world.
“For a young life to be cut short playing our national game seems a shocking aberration,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
“He was loved, admired and respected by his team mates and by legions of cricket fans.”
The news of Hughes’ death came like a bolt from the blue. The 25-year-old had been in an induced coma for two days after being struck by a bouncer from Sean Abbott at the Sydney Cricket Ground in a domestic encounter.
He had needed CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before undergoing emergency surgery to reduce the pressure on his brain.
Cricket is not a sport associated with death, so hopes were high that he would survive but the injuries he suffered were catastrophic.
The ball hit him on the side of his neck, compressing his vertebral artery and causing it to split, forcing blood into the brain area.
Doctors removed parts of his skull during the operation but the damage was too severe and he never regained consciousness.
“This was a freakish accident because it was an injury to the neck that caused haemorrhage in the brain,” Cricket Australia doctor Peter Brukner said. “The condition is incredibly rare.”
His death will undoubtedly raise questions about safety standards in the game. Hughes was wearing a helmet but the ball slipped through a tiny gap between his shoulder and the base of his protective hard hat.
Jagmohan Dalmiya, the former International Cricket Council chief, told Reuters safety standards would have to be reviewed in light of Hughes’ death.
“Injuries are part of cricket but precautions should be taken so that such incidents do not happen,” he said.
The outpouring of grief that followed the news of the player’s death was elevated in part by his enormous popularity.
Raised on a farm, Hughes was a throwback to cricket’s golden era, self-taught through hours of monotonous practice in his backyard.
He made his first-class debut at 18 and was picked for the Australian team at just 20, scoring twin centuries in his second test match, against South Africa.
Despite his unconventional technique, he scored a mountain of runs and was compared to Don Bradman, cricket’s greatest ever batsman.
But his vulnerability to short-pitched bowling stalled his career, though not his popularity.
From his 26 tests, he scored 1,535 runs at an average of 32.65, with three centuries. He has also scored two one-day hundreds and seemed certain to be part of the Australian team that will co-host next year’s World Cup.
He was dropped three times but never once complained and was on the verge of being recalled when his life was suddenly taken away, and leaving an entire game inconsolable.
(This story has been refiled to correct typo in paragraph 14, dropped word in paragraph 26)
Writing by Julian Linden; Editing by John O'Brien