NSW Coroner Michael Barnes has delivered his findings from the inquest into the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, who died in St Vincent's Hospital two days after being struck in the neck by a short-pitched ball at the SCG on November 24, 2014.
In short, the coroner found no fault with either players or umpires and ruled that the death was a tragic accident.
"This sad and violent death, which is not the first to occur in a cricket match, reinforces that cricket is a potentially dangerous game. It involves a heavy, hard ball being speared at the batsman from a relatively short distance at great speed," Barnes said in the preamble to his findings.
His conclusion read thus, directly addressing the concerns of the Hughes family that their son had been unfairly targeted.
Finally, as acknowledged at the outset, the family's grief at losing their much loved son and brother was exacerbated by their belief that unfair play had contributed to his death. In the course of this inquest, they have heard from independent experts, high ranking cricket officials and some of the players who were on the field with Phillip when he played his last game of cricket. Clearly, they do not agree with all that they heard. However, it is hoped that they accept the compelling evidence that the rules were complied with. Phillip was excelling at the crease as he so often did and that his death was a tragic accident.
The inquest, held in October, had revolved around the two key questions of whether the New South Wales team had targeted Hughes unfairly with too many dangerous short-pitched balls, and whether umpires should have done more to step in and prevent those balls. Twenty-three short balls were bowled on the day, 20 of them directed at Hughes.
The coroner, while stating that the "spirit of "cricket" and "fair play" are concepts whose meaning has changed as cricket has become more professional over the years, and while questioning why such a "beautiful game would need such an ugly underside", had this to say with regards to whether the NSW players were directly at fault.
"The presiding umpires, Phillip's batting partner and other players on the field at the relevant time all gave evidence that Phillip appeared comfortable, relaxed and in control in the session of play after lunch when the threats were allegedly made. That suggested that even if the threats were made, they didn't affect Phillip's composure so as to undermine his capacity to defend himself against short pitched high bouncing bowling and so the threats could not be implicated in his death."
And he said this, on the subject of the umpires' handling of the barrage of short-pitched bowling:
"There was also concern that Phillip had been subjected to excessive short pitched and high bouncing balls which increased the risk of him being hit. The rules regulating bowling of balls that bounce at or above shoulder height are detailed in the report. In summary, no more than two may be bowled per over. The rules also prohibit short pitched bowling bouncing below shoulder height if it poses a danger to the batsman. In assessing whether that is likely, the umpires are to have regard of the height of the bouncing balls, the direction, the frequency with which they are bald and the competency of the batsman. The family was concerned that the umpires failed to intervene when required to prevent such dangers arising. Detailed in the report are the opinions of an independent expert umpire who was retained to review the recorded vision of the day's play. He provided to the court a report summarising his findings and gave evidence at the inquest. Mr (Simon) Taufell concluded the umpires applied the laws and the playing conditions in relation to short pitched bowling extremely well."
The inquest had been marred by an at-time spiteful series of disagreements between the Hughes families, and NSW players, many of whom repeatedly used phrases like "I can't recall" when asked to explain their on-field demeanour on the day Hughes was struck.
Barnes was clearly sceptical of the outbreak of amnesia, saying:
"The repeated denials of any sledging having occurred in the game in which Phillip Hughes was injured were difficult to accept. Members of Phillip's family considered that the spirit of the game had been disrespected by an opposition bowler who they alleged made threats of violence towards Phillip or his batting partner. That was denied by the bowler in question and the batting partner but there was other evidence contradicting those denials and supporting the family's claims."
But he went on to say that the inquest didn't have jurisdiction to investigate whether the rules had been complied with during the game, unless an alleged breach may have contributed to the death.
On at least two occasions, the Coroner failed to draw a causal link between any such alleged breaches, and the fatal incident, stating that "Phillip was excelling at the crease" and that his death was a "tragic accident".
The coroner went on to recommend a string of minor changes. He rejected the need for further training of umpires and other match officials in first aid and in particular, the immediate management of head injuries -- on account of the dedicated expert medical resources now available at all first-class matches.
However, he said it was essential that umpires facilitate access to medical assistance in a timely fashion.
Meanwhile Cricket Australia chief James Sutherland said that while he didn't disagree with the coroner's comments on the [at times questionable] spirit in which the game is played, he didn't believe sledging crosses the line.
"I don't believe it has crossed the line because the umpires are out there doing a job, they are professionals. I know they talk about it a lot, they think about it a lot, they're briefed on it a lot and we don't see a lot of reports for that sort of behaviour."
Sutherland stood by the code his body has implemented to ensure sledging does not cross the line from banter to something more vicious.
"I think, on the subject of sledging, sledging can be in the spirit of the game and it cannot be. It just depends on your definition of sledging. And I think that certainly on-field banter is something that has always been a part of the game, but when that banter turns to abuse or anything like that, then it crosses the line into something different and that's not in the spirit of the game, and that's why the code of behaviour for Cricket Australia and international cricket deals with those issues."
Sutherland again offered his condolences to the Hughes family, and said he had the utmost respect for the coronial process which he said had been a "stark reminder of a terrible tragedy".
Most of all, our thoughts are with Greg, Virginia, Jason and Megan. Phillip was their son and brother and they, more than anyone, have had to live with the sad reality that Phillip is no longer with them. We cannot but imagine how difficult the last couple of years have been for them," he said.