I’ve played a lot of cricket. My favourite Christmas memory is still getting my first cricket bat when I was 5 and I carried it around with me all day. I’ve got a photo with Dean Jones, Sachin Tendulkar and the signatures of Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and Warrick Todd (the greatest of all time) in the index of their respective autobiographies. I used to carve out fictional scorecards on the long drives to Adelaide for my school cricket team… I made a lot of hundreds and took a lot of bags. I bowled and I bowled and I bowled in the backyard, imagining my career for South Australia and eventually in the baggy green. But with time comes the realisation that I was never going to be a once in a generation leg spin bowler. I had some great days where I took bags of wickets, but I also had days when I was tonked out of the attack. I was a fairly good leg spin bowler and an OK bat but I would never be the cricketer I imagined I was in my backyard.
As I got older, I grew taller and lost my passion for getting tonked on a Saturday afternoon. Cold beers and pretty girls started to take precedent and who could blame me? Despite my semi-retirement from all forms of cricket minus in my backyard, I still felt the itch to come back every summer. The hot days in the field, the camaraderie, the averages, the strike rates, the close calls, the line ball decisions and the feeling of being part of a team. That’s what I missed about cricket. Cricket was my first love throughout my schooling. Footy has retained its place consistently to this day, old school Simpsons episodes remain a constant and then the shuffle between theatre, pretty girls, my friends, movies and live music rolls around, keeping the top two honest.
Sport is a ubiquitous part of Australian life. Whilst the complaints are constant that the existence of professional Australian sport is underlined by misogyny, racism, homophobia and elitism, I tend to argue that this is a relatively minor problem when you look at the bigger picture. Sure, there are instances when I have been betrayed by my faith in our sporting culture, sometimes by individuals, sometimes, and more alarming, by codes that carry the name of the sport I love. In saying this, I am not naïve. Professional sport is a business. One that we hold in a special light shrouded in nostalgia and sentiment, but still a business nonetheless. I don’t follow Australian sport for the politics or the corporate takeovers or the debates about whether we hold sport in a holier than thou light. No, I follow sport because I love the art of self-improvement, fighting for something that is mostly intangible and the tradition that comes before our time. That intangible feeling is the knowledge that you have supported or been involved in something greater than simply you and me.
As a kid I didn’t dream up the completely unrealistic scenarios of my international cricketing career and AFL career for the sake of big endorsements, fast cars and associations with Hugh Jackman, Prince William and Harry Styles. I dreamt up these scenarios because I wanted to hear the roar of nearly one hundred thousand people carrying me toward another grandstand moment. At the end of the day, it wouldn’t be the average, the strike rate, the possessions, the tackles and the statistics in general that would matter, but the connection between you and these people. A connection just like a musician has with her audience, an actor and her script, an accountant and his clients and a man and his dog. Of course the mundane matters, but you won’t be remembering the time you saved 72 cents off the blue Gatorade you had before your grand final when you are moments away from death. No, you’ll be remembering the hug you shared with your best mate when he’s just hit the winning runs.
I started playing cricket again this year because my mate asked me to come down and have a bowl. It was clearly evident from my first beamer (accidental full toss at the head of the batsman) in the nets that the dream of being Shane Warne’s second coming was most certainly over – firstly because I had given up on the leg spin and secondly because I can’t run in more than ten times consecutively without cramping in my hamstrings… not a good sign for a 24 year old. However, that camaraderie and connection with the game returned when I played my first game in two years. Sure, I made a few comments about the game being ‘a giant waste of time’ and ‘a fucking stupid game’ when I narrowly missed the stumps of a kid who was waving a gripless bat around for the third time in five balls, but internally I was content to have come back to the game I loved as a kid.
This week I, along with millions of other cricket followers, learned of the tragic death of Phillip Hughes to a freak accident on the cricket field during a Sheffield Shield game between New South Wales and South Australia. If my childhood dreams had served me correctly, I would have been playing in that game along with my teammate Phil. Unfortunately, I was in a class in Japan, learning about the dire state of the Japanese economy whilst Phil was 63 not out. He was reported to have said to one of the umpires that day that he was in the zone. There is little doubt he would have been returning to the Australian test team the week following this standard four-day fixture.
It is hard to comprehend that Phil is now no longer with us. In a freakish twist of fate, Phil was struck in the neck, below the helmet, by a bouncer and never regained consciousness once he hit the deck. I don’t want to go into details about the incident because it is something that I would rather forget and pretend it never happened. Pretend that Phil did not die and pretend that we are going out together tomorrow to hit the nets in anticipation for our next hit out. However, facts being facts and dreams simply being dreams, Phil top-scored in South Australia’s first innings with 63 not out. The last ball of the game was the last ball of his life.
The outpouring of emotion from cricketers, cricket-lovers, unattached members of the public and ‘cricket is a very boring game’-isers has been overwhelming if not completely surprising. A young man has died doing the thing he loved. There is no doubt he would have conjured up scenarios on his debut for Australia from a very young age. ‘And young Phillip Hughes enters the field of play for the first time in the baggy green. He’s unorthodox yet highly capable with the willow. He is certainly one to watch.’ In this case though, Hughes’ dreams became a reality. Tons in both innings of his second test match against the best attack in the world at the time, South Africa, illustrates that this kid wasn’t just watching a harmless wrong’un become a vicious flipper in a residential backyard in Melbourne’s inner-east. Yet, I still feel a major connection with Hughes despite the fact that I am a ‘never-was-gonna’ and he was a ‘has-it-bloody-allaaa’. He was less than two years older than me. He was a happy-go-lucky sort of guy. But most of all, he just really loved the camaraderie and connections that come with playing cricket, or any team sport for that matter.
Days after the incident, I’m still feeling slightly numb. It’s not as if his international test batting average was sparkling or he was guaranteed to become a great of the game. He was a player who had been heavily criticised for his technique after a blistering start to his test career. Admittedly, the wave of popular opinion pushed him out of the side. Despite this, Phil was a young man and he battled back into the side time and time again and was set to do the same at the age of 26. This guy was a prodigious talent. He was a rare commodity in Australian cricketer. A young man capable of being a world beater with the determination to take criticism on board and become a better player. This was a man who spent a lot of time in his backyard soul searching. Finding a better response to a crisis and dreaming of scoring big again.
The cynic lying dormant within whispers ‘shit happens, get over it’ and yet my better qualities respond resolutely with ‘but it doesn’t.’ This shit doesn’t happen. We all know the risks. We know the underlying risks of everything we do because we are a spoon-fed society who tends to avoid risk to the point of becoming mind-numbed sheep who live in fear of the worst. People take risks to feel the essence of humanity. We take risks in choosing the unlikely option, in jumping off a plane with a parachute on our back, in travelling halfway around the world indefinitely with only a few thousand dollars to our name and in playing sport. Is it comforting to know that he lost his life doing the thing he loved rather than any of the myriad of ways he could have died otherwise? Not really. He died doing what he loved, but I’m not really feeling the poetry of that statement. I’m attempting to find the poetry of this tragic circumstance just like I did when I discovered that Steven Sotloff was murdered by Islamist militants (ISIS) in the most callous way imaginable. I’m not comparing the two in any other way than the fact that they died in the line of their duty. It’s possible to conjure something but the conclusion we will inevitably come to is that a man has died in a terrible manner… and as a human, I am deeply affected.
The past two seasons when I’m searching in the back pages of the Age Sport section on Sunday morning for cricket results, I have searched for two people in particular. My cousin, who plays first grade district cricket and Phil Hughes playing for South Australia. Inevitably I dream of how they went about their innings, how they manufactured runs on a tough deck and built partnerships with their team mates and then had a couple of cold frothies after the game. Knowing my cousin rather well, I don’t need to imagine that he had a couple. Phil Hughes on the other hand might have popped back to his farm for a couple of beers with his old man, talking about his plans to get back into the test team but also mentioning how fond he is of playing for South Australia and doing what he loves for most of the summer. Cricket is a hard game, but it is just that, a game. It is a terrific battle between bat and bowl, and the head and the heart. You can feel a big pull shot but adhere to everything you’ve learnt about the ‘stupid game’ in the ridiculous amount of hours you have spent analysing, watching and hopefully playing (if you can last long enough in the middle) and play a back-foot defensive shot.
After my first game for two years ended in a humiliating loss at the hands of a bunch of 18 year old scallywags, I took a moment to assess why I was returning to the field. I had university to concentrate on, work to attend, business plans to dream up and beers to consume. But then it hit me. This game is one of my first loves. Things change in life, priorities swing back and forth, sidewards, upward and twirl, twirl, twirl to the point when you really have no idea what you are doing with yourself… but your first love will always remain somewhere dormant within your heart. So as I sipped a Tiger beer with my good mate Sam, his brother Hugh, my acquaintance evolving into friend Salmo and my new mate Keysie, I remembered that cricket isn’t about how many runs you make or how many wickets you took (3, just in case you were wondering). It’s about a connection to the game. A connection to your team mates, a connection to your opponents, a connection to the pitch and a connection to the traditions and customs of this great game. Unfortunately for my Saturday afternoon plans in the future, I’m too connected to the sport to simply walk away from cricket, just as I am with footy.
Phil Hughes was heavily connected to the game as well. He was loved by his team mates, respected by his nemeses and became a curiosity for the cricketing public. Unorthodox yet exciting. As talented as he was frustrating when he had the willow in his hand. A larrikin and a happy-go-lucky country lad. Early on in his career, comparisons were drawn between Bradman and Hughes. These were probably unfair in regard to how much pressure that would place on a young man, and yet he wasn’t outwardly bothered. He just acknowledged that he was very lucky to be doing what he truly loved doing. And just like everyone who somehow gets sucked into playing such a ridiculously time-consuming and frustrating sport, he probably cursed his luck that he was so entrenched in the game after an instance of being dismissed cheaply early on in a Sheffield Shield fixture. However, you don’t just give up on your first love. Your affection can be frayed and dismembered, but it is rare for the feeling to ever totally evaporate. You’ll just head back into that backyard. See yourself hitting the winning runs, witnessing your team become immortal in the eyes of those who are obsessed with the game like you have always been, and you’ll realise that spiritually, you will never be able remove yourself from the game.
Phil Hughes died at the hands of the game he loved, and it has fractured my own love of the game for the time being. Just like so many others, I’m aching because of it. Sean Abbott is aching because of it. Phil’s family and friends are aching because of it. Maybe a few will be lost to the game for good due to the destruction it has caused to their lives. However, I will not be lost to the game I have loved since I was a young, adorable little scamp. Phil Hughes is part of the reason I love this game so much. A flirty technique but such tenacity and an insatiable hunger that kept him going even when he was struggling to make a run. Even more relevantly, he cared about the game and cared about his community, and in doing that we will to continue to care about him. For it is a person like Phil who makes something that is ‘just a game’ worth believing in to the point of becoming hopelessly dedicated to it.
‘He can defend and he can lash. He is going to score buckets. He has figured out the odds, knows the angles, trusts his eye and likes batting. His technique may be homespun but that does not mean it does not work. He has fast eyes, feet and wits. And he’s going to play his part in a fresh, spirited and more vibrant Australian team.’ The late Peter Roebuck providing another example of his exceptional analysis of cricket in early 2009.
Phil Hughes, forever 63 not out.