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Family Walks Out, As Hughes Inquest Becomes Courtroom Drama

It was never meant to be like this.
Late cricketer Phil Hughes parents Greg and Virginia Hughes leave Downing Centre after the final day of the inquest into Phil Hughes death on October 14, 2016 in Sydney
Late cricketer Phil Hughes parents Greg and Virginia Hughes leave Downing Centre after the final day of the inquest into Phil Hughes death on October 14, 2016 in Sydney

A chapter of Australian public life which, through tragedy, unified so many in the community, has taken on a bitter tone, with an ever-growing divide between the Hughes family and Cricket Australia.

In the latest development at the inquest into the death of Phillip Hughes on Friday, there has been a walkout from all four Hughes family members -- mum and dad Virginia and Greg, followed shortly afterwards by siblings Megan and Jason.

Nobody wanted the inquest to go down this path. In his opening remarks to the inquest, NSW State Coroner Michael Barnes said this:

The essential details of the sad death of Phillip Hughes were apparent soon after it occurred... These inquiries are not undertaken to lay blame -- quite clearly the death was a terrible accident -- but that doesn't mean cricket can't be made safer.

Barnes set a non-combative tone in his call not to apportion blame. From minute one, day one, you thought, OK, we're here to table the facts, to preserve them on the public record, and to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that nothing like this ever happens again without every conceivable safeguard in place.

But the tone has changed.

Often this week, the players code of "what happens on the field stays on the field" has been in evidence. Some of the most common phrases uttered have been "I don't recall" or "I have no recollection of that". Hughes Family counsel Greg Melick referred on Friday to the "pre-fabricated evidence" provided by players.

The family is not seeking victims, or to use that awful term, "closure". As Andrew Webster wrote eloquently in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, the family has been "privately concerned for two years about the number of short-pitched deliveries sent down to Phillip that afternoon, but are not looking to apportion culpability".

But they have been growing ever more frustrated as the week has progressed. Before the Friday walkout, it was a simple shake of the head at Thursday's proceedings that confirmed things had turned in an unfortunate direction.

The head shake came from Greg Hughes, who drove his son up and down the NSW coast back in the day as the young batsman honed his craft, often against boys much older. The head shake was accompanied by the words "lying" and "bullshit". Greg Hughes is a frustrated man. He wants to know what happened on the field in the lead-up to his son's death. He and his family deserve none of the derision directed their way on social media.

The bottom line, though, is that cricket is an inherently dangerous game. Bowlers deliberately bowl at people's heads to make them uncomfortable. There's even a phrase for it. They call it "chin music". No cricket lover would want the game any other way, least of all Phillip Hughes.

England made short-pitched bowling part of their plans in 2009 when Hughes played his first Ashes series. They were successful, dismissing the previously prolific runscorer cheaply on several occasions and ousting him from the team. Hughes never complained.

South Africa admitted they got it wrong in Hughes' first series by not attacking Hughes enough with the short stuff. Hughes himself then said "I can't wait for what lies ahead" on his return to South Africa in 2011, when the hosts detailed plans to bowl loads of the short stuff.

After Hughes' death in 2014, Australian fast bowling great Mitchell Johnson said he questioned the ethical place of short-pitched bowling in his bowling armoury. His conclusion? That yes, despite the tragedy, there was definitely a place for it.

There were 23 bouncers (short-pitched balls) bowled that fateful day in November. At the inquest on Friday, it was said that nine short balls in a row were sent Hughes' way.

That's on the high side of normal, but it's cricket. There was also sledging that day. That, too, was par for the course.

The Hughes family, naturally, is frustrated at what they perceive as amnesia. But does it matter what was said on the field? Hughes' death was a freak accident. The inquest has already determined that the cricket played on the day of his death was within the laws and spirit of the game -- or at least the aggressive spirit common in Australian cricket.

At one session of the inquest two SCG personnel were quizzed on their emergency response. Turned out one of them had training which was slightly below the level you might expect. As we all know, the ambulance was also slow in arriving. But under the circumstances of the Hughes incident in which he was effectively beyond medical aid the minute he hit the ground, this is all marginal stuff.

Less than a minute after Hughes was struck, the team doctor was on the ground and a specialist who happened to be in the crowd was also out there. In different circumstances, these mildly sloppy emergency response procedures may have caused a tragedy. But in the Hughes case, nothing that happened after the incident could have prevented his death.

Again and again, that's the message from this inquest. Fate dealt the Hughes family and all cricket lovers a cruel blow. The coroner will deliver his findings on November 4.

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