There are nearly 200 countries in the world. About half of them play cricket. More precisely, about half of them play cricket within the fold of the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s governing institution, segmented across classifications like Full Members, Associate Members and Affiliate Members, in decreasing order of hierarchy. Today, the sense of competition, within individual segments, and occasional marquee events like the World Cup, which allow the ‘lesser’ mortals to rub shoulders with the big boys, is cut-throat, often rendering the ‘gentleman’s game’ a redundant phrase strictly restricted to reminisces of a bygone era.
The ‘today’ I referred to, ended, at least momentarily, a few days ago, and has been replaced with a new dimension, also going by the same name, but which begs a slightly different description.
Today, the cricketing world stands united. Today, events and visuals not often associated with the game in recent times are upon us. Missing are the mind games and verbal volleys customarily preceding a big-ticket series. A rest day has been observed in the middle of a Test match, something not witnessed at this level since the turn of the century, other than for cosmic or political reasons. Cricket superheroes have been pictured openly weeping or holding back their tears with an effort, clinging onto each other, drowned not by the ecstasy of decimating an opposition, but an overwhelming grief which has descended like a joy-sucking shadow, one that threatens to not lift anytime soon.
Two moments have changed modern cricket forever – the first, when news and disturbing images, of a young man felled by a bouncer and in a state of coma, started flashing across television screens and sports websites all over the world. Though horrific, most would have pushed their worst fears into the deepest corners of their hearts. Surely he would recover, the worst case scenario being premature retirement. Nothing worse could happen, not in today’s age of technological and medical marvels. Unfortunately, our absolute dwarfness in front of some greater power was highlighted by the second moment, which, had it not happened, would have pushed the first into inconspicuousness.
The second moment was, for me, a sucker punch of immeasurable power. As I logged in at work, a colleague told me that the young man had passed away. It did not register. I pried open my laptop and blazed away on the keyboard a name which was punched into search engines several times in the past couple of days. The results showed up, confirming what my brain already knew but my mind refused to acknowledge.
After a two-day battle, the young man, Philip Hughes, had left the earthly pitch in favor of a heavenly one.
The initial feeling was still disbelief, immediately followed by a keen sense of disorientation. Then my fingers started transporting me to multiple social media platforms without any specific instruction from the brain. I am not a crying person, not for someone I never knew personally, and certainly not in an era where details surrounding unnatural fatalities, of every kind, are streamed into our living rooms via a variety of media channels, traditional and social, the fodder for which is abundantly available, with man and nature appearing to compete with one another for the title of superior killing machine. However, as I ran through the stream of reactions coming in, from celebrities as well as lesser mortals, I noticed my eyes moisten and a lump appear as if out of nowhere in my throat.
Tributes have poured in for Hughes, plucked away just days shy of his 26th birthday. I have not done a lot besides going through most, all stating a similar story at the core, but personal emotions adding a subtle variation as unique as life itself. I cannot claim to know the man half as well as some of these people, but stand united with most in the world, some of whom may have come across his name for the first time, encapsulated by this overbearing grief which, like some kind of wrecking ball, has shattered most boundaries within cricket, hierarchically or otherwise.
Like those not well accustomed with Australian domestic cricket, my earliest memory of Hughes was his dramatic entry into Test cricket in early 2009. Playing the South Africans, in their own backyard, and opening the innings against a bowling attack comprising Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini, is nothing short of baptism by fire. He failed on debut, at Johannesburg, caught behind for a duck while attempting an outrageous over-the-slips slash off Steyn. The short lived innings sent out two messages. Firstly, he had the most unconventional technique for an opener, and secondly, he knew no fear.
Hughes’ next three innings proved exactly why he was rated so highly, and likened to no less than Sir Don Bradman at the start of the original master’s career. A match-winning knock of 75 in the second innings was followed by centuries in each innings of the Second Test at Durban, which Australia won easily and the left-hander picked up a Player of the Match award for his efforts.
After the bright beginning, Hughes’ Test career descended into obscurity over the next three years; but for an occasional exploit here and there, he was a largely unknown entity to me during this period, and my sub -conscious had already bracketed him as another statistic in the list of cricketers unable to realize their full potential.
It was in December 2012, during the Sri Lankan tour Down Under, that I followed a couple of his innings on live television. It took me a while to associate this much more compact batsman with the swashbuckler of nearly four years back. Hughes, now playing one-down, was solid against pace as well as spin, looked in far greater control, and seemed to have traded some of his agricultural shots of yore for more traditional ones. Another noticeable change was his confident on-side play, which was largely non-existential during his debut series.
The only time I followed Hughes through an entire Test series, came soon after, during Australia’s tour of India in early 2013, infamous not just for the walloping suffered by the tourists, but also the Homeworkgate saga.
Among several insipid batting performances by the visitors, Hughes’ 69 during the second innings of the Third Test at Mohali stood out. On a difficult pitch and against the rampaging spin trio of Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Ravindra Jadeja, the diminutive batsman stood tall amidst the ruins (none of the other Aussies crossed 35). Hughes looked set for a match-winning/saving and career defining century when he was felled by an absolute howler by umpire Aleem Dar, possibly his worst decision in a relatively immaculate career. Australia lost the Test match, and the next, and Hughes’ Test career looked under threat. Yet again.
The final time I saw Hughes in whites was largely by accident. I was not really following the 2013 Ashes series in England, beyond score updates. England were bundled out for 200-odd in the first innings of the opening Test at Trent Bridge, and Australia, in reply, had lost nine wickets for a little more than 100 runs. I noted that Hughes was playing further down the order and was still at the crease when debutant and number 11 batsman Ashton Agar joined him.
When I checked back about an hour later, expecting the English openers to be back in the pavilion, I was in for a major surprise. The Australians were still batting, both batsmen were 50+, and Agar was outscoring Hughes. I abandoned whatever I was doing and headed to the nearest available television to witness what promised to be history in the making. The debutant had thrown caution to the wind, and was striking it at run-a-ball as he broke into the 80s, looking set to become the first number 11 to score a Test century. Hughes was painstakingly unselfish, allowing his younger partner a majority of the strike towards the latter half of their partnership.
Agar fell, heartbreakingly two short of a record creating century, while Hughes stayed unbeaten on 81, in what was hailed as one of the best knocks of his career. ESPNCricinfo’s Daniel Brettig believed that a technically superior Hughes, displaying immense poise while playing with the tail, looked like the perfect replacement for Michael Hussey in the middle-order.
“The dancing, struggling, edging Hughes of the past was nowhere to be seen,” Brettig wrote. “In his place stood a batsman of far greater composure. Agar had earned a revered place in history, but he could not have done so without Hughes. Hussey would have been proud.”
In hindsight, Brettig couldn’t have been more wrong. Hughes failed in the next Text, at Lord’s, and was dropped in favour of another young batsman, Usman Khawaja.
He would never again play Test cricket.
While Hughes once again dropped off my radar, patrons of Australian cricket were clamoring for his inclusion in the national Test team. In early 2014, former skipper Allan Border minced no words voicing his opinion on Hughes’ absence from the national Test team.
“I have a very soft spot for young (Phil) Hughes and I think he’s been badly treated in the past … maybe they’re just making him really earn his stripes again this time,” Border said. “He’s just so far in front of any other contender it’s not funny, so I’m hoping they’ll take Hughes on the plane (to South Africa). It looks like Doolan’s jumped in front of him and I’m not 100 per cent sure why.”
His words fell on deaf ears, as Hughes continued his never-to-be-realized wait.
Despite being the first Australian to have scored a double century in List A cricket for men, Hughes’ ODI career was even shorter, mostly relegated to being a spare, filling in for injuries as and when required, and then unceremoniously discarded.
Australia experimented quite a bit with their batting order during the recently concluded two-match Test series against Pakistan. The unhappy result increased the fervor of demands for Hughes’ recall. Considered alongside the inevitability of Michael Clarke’s unavailability for the First Test due to injury, Hughes looked set for yet another shot at pursuing his dream.
Then the first moment happened. And of course, the second.
Numerous questions have surfaced in the aftermath: Why did the ambulance reach 15 minutes too late? Would the latest helmet model have saved Hughes? How will Sean Abbott cope? How will close friends and colleagues cope? Should the Test series against India have been called off? Will the Mitchell Johnsons and the Varun Aarons unleash the short ball with the same frequency? Should bouncers be banned? Have batsmen become more complacent due to excessive protective gear?
The list can go on. And so can the debates around it. But one harsh reality stares us in the face. Philip Hughes is no longer among us.
I have come to know a lot about the man in the past few days. His upbringing, his familiy, his likes and dislikes, his dreams, his attitude, and above all, his unconquerable zeal to play for his country at the highest level.
For an outsider like me, many of these were unknown during his lifetime. But one aspect of his remains etched in my memory. His smile. Not a sneer sported by many cricketers today, perhaps to position themselves as competitive, but a warm, genuine, ready smile. Not cocky or arrogant, but a pleasant cross between shyness and quiet confiedence in one’s abilities. A friendly face in an ocean of aggressiveness, exuded by cricketers all over the world today. That’s what made him stand out, for me.
At about 5’7 (170cm), Hughes’ physical presence was in direct contrast to his name, as well as that of his yesteryear nameake, Merv, who incidentally played an important role in young Phil’s selection for his debut Test. Measured in terms of impact on the game, in life, the South Australian had the potential to make it big – really big, if the words of those who followed him through his formative years are to be believed. In death, Hughes towers above every other living cricketer today, irrespective of their achievements. In a sad paradox, death has made Hughes immortal.
To conclude, I quote from the most touching tribute I came across, dedicated by ex-cricketer and former national batting coach, Justin Langer, who was at Hughes’ side during his final moments.
Lying lifeless he still looks so strong. His heart is pumping and his chest rising and falling. Rising and falling.
Get up little fella, get up.
He is lying in his hospital bed. I have my hand on his arm and I am begging him to wake up. Come on little fella, wake up, it’s time to get your dancing shoes on, it’s time for another hundred. You’ve never been broken, you can do it again.
They are turning off the machine.
Moments later our little brother, our little mate, our son has passed away.
C’mon little fella, get up champ, get up.
For the first time in his life he can’t. But you know what, little fella? It’s OK. Keep sleeping. You have left an indelible mark.
Rest In Peace little champ.
RIP Hughesy. You will be missed.
This article was first published in Mailer Report: http://www.mailerreport.com/#!an-indians-tribute-to-phil-hughes/c5nn