And it didn’t bear thinking about. Smith moved a hand, then his head, and was soon on his feet. He already had an injured arm, thanks to the earlier blow from Archer which had led to the chaotic batting and snowballing bumper attack that resulted in this. He had shrugged off the doctor’s inquiries then, and now he tried to shrug him off again, saying, ‘I feel great.’
The doctor decided otherwise, and took him off for a concussion test. People clapped. People booed.
And cricket carried on. Having ascertained that Smith was alive, the hard men of the retirement brigade laced their commentary with reminiscences of when so-and-so marked out his crease with the blood of the man who had just left. The history nerds tried to compare damaging spells of fast bowling through the years.
Here’s the only one they needed, the one they didn’t want to talk about: Sean Abbott, New South Wales versus South Australia, Sydney Cricket Ground, 25 November 2014. Five years since Hughes’s death, this game is not one step closer to reconciling its machismo with any overriding care for human life. It cannot, of course. Ban the bouncer? That would emasculate the bowlers. Ban danger? Can’t be done, given that the next fatality is most likely a bowler, fielder or spectator hit by a T20 missile.
So instead, the game and the spectators construct our own glass box of oblivion. We forget instantly. We build a protocol of concussion rules, which Smith passed so successfully he was back out in the middle half an hour after he had been a whisker from losing his life. Was he concussed? No, but he didn’t seem to be all there either. He hoicked his second ball over midwicket like beach cricket, and then stood in front of a straight ball, walked off before the umpire had given his decision, and threw a review request over his shoulder. Huh? Wasn’t this its own concussion test?
Smith was booed off for getting out just as he had been booed off for retiring hurt and booed on again when returning. Some cheered, some clapped, and some still only saw a sporting contest, not the most chilling sliding-doors moment.
Five years since Hughes’s death, this game is not one step closer to reconciling its machismo with any overriding care for human life.
For coming back, was Smith showing bravery or stupidity? Or just… cricket? The game’s cycle of violence paused only briefly after Phil Hughes died, soon resuming and intensifying in Australian hands. Mitchell Starc has long been used as an agent of intimidation. Two days ago, Patrick Cummins bowled at Archer’s head, and Archer’s short-pitched reprisal on Saturday was first launched against Cummins, with Smith eventually caught up as collateral damage. Once Archer had hit Smith in the arm, he sensed the weakness that England have been seeking for so long and aimed at Smith’s head. If the roles had been reversed, Australia would have done the same.
Smith’s choice to continue batting was only brave within cricket’s glass box, which has somehow enchanted him and transformed his disgrace into glory. How can anyone keep his head inside that glass box? How long is it going to last? What are the long-term, or even the short-term, effects on his mental health?
Never mind. The game has to go on. Spectators live in our own imitations of that box, and are as dim to those questions as the participants. If you could keep your brain inside that box, you could appreciate the courage, the skill, and the character of what Smith was doing out there. But only if you stay inside the box.
Some sports have a fundamental stupidity, and a few of them an equally fundamental hypocrisy. Many cricket folk look down their noses at the barbarity of boxing, or bullfighting, or the rugby codes, where trying to hit someone in the head gets you sent off. In cricket, you can try to hit someone in the head with a ball travelling 150 kilometres an hour, a proven killer, but you can only do it twice an over. And then twice the next over. And so on until you get tired or you hit him.
It is oblivion, not memory and even less imagination, that drives games. Memories of Hughes had to be shut out. Imagination of what might have happened had the ball struck Smith’s neck a centimetre or two differently – well that just makes you too sick for words. Smith was all right. Crack on with the game; it’s the manly thing to do. What remains is forgetting, ignoring, looking forward, crawling back inside that glass box where competition is all and ‘bravery’ is a set of simulations and analogues, while a glimpse of the terrifying fragility of life is transformed into passing guises, expressions of concern, formulas and processes, black suits worn at funerals.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.