Phillip Joel Hughes passed away on Thursday 27 November 2014. He lost consciousness on the pitch, and never regained it, after the destruction of a major artery caused massive internal bleeding. He would have been 26 years old today. That very statement makes me want to throw my head back and howl. It is too sad for words. This tragedy has caused shock and grief for the Australian cricket community, for Australia in general and extends through the cricket and sporting worlds. Our hearts and thoughts go to Phillip Hughes’ family and friends and the Australian cricket team.
I have written a few obituaries over the years but this one is by far the saddest. The expressions of grief and solidarity have been overwhelming and touching but it doesn’t seem to ease the pain. I am sure it helps and must be part of the grieving process but how do we come to terms with such shock and loss? How could one of our number have been taken at such a young age, playing a simple game, a gentleman’s game?
When I wrote to celebrate the life of David Hookes after his untimely death, much of that was an examination of Hookes’ career, his status as a cricket legend and his treatment by the selectors over the years. Hookes’ statistics are remarkably similar to those of Phillip Hughes but I will be undertaking no such discussion here for several reasons. The first is that the story had not finished for Phillip Hughes. We will never know what might have been but I would like to think that Phillip Hughes had a big part to play in Australian cricket in the next decade and that he would have played many more Tests. And, as Hughes’ career was very much incomplete and wounds are so raw, I don’t think there is any place for retrospection. When asked about his selection frustrations, I heard that Hughes held no ill feeling, did not feel sorry for himself and would simply remark, “I have plenty of time.”
I have posted to my blog many times (more than 500) for more than a decade. Many times, I write for self therapy. This is one of those times. We grieve in many and different ways and writing and reflecting is one of those for me. I have found the communal grieving for Phillip Hughes deeply touching. I have left my bat out and I have watched many tributes on TV and social media. These have ranged from the Australian cricket captain to international and top level sporting fixtures to kiddies in their Saturday morning matches. I support the postponement and cancellation of matches. I think the small gestures including retiring Hughes’ ODI shirt number (64) and ensuring that his final innings is recorded as 63 not out (instead of retired hurt) are important and worthwhile.
I will spend some time reflecting on my own personal memories of Hughes. Although he had not enjoyed consistent success on the Test stage, we must remember that he was a prodigious talent and it surely was a matter of time before he pressed claims for greatness.
Before doing this, I want to reflect briefly on why we are so profoundly affected. In working through my own grief, I think, ‘Why does it hurt so much? Why am I so traumatised?’ It is tragic when a young person in the prime of life dies and it happens every day. And it is just as tragic each time. No life matters more than another so why does this one have such an impact? There is just one other time that I recall the nation being so collectively grief stricken at the loss of a countryman and that was Steve Irwin. I wept for him, too. The common factors I can see are the exuberance and pureness of heart of Irwin and Hughes – and that they died suddenly and shockingly doing the very thing that brought them into our lives. They died doing what they loved; what we love. And, in the case of Phillip Hughes, he died before our eyes.
The cricket world is rocked. I don’t know how long it will take for cricket to recover but I have observed that people have an incredible capacity to endure and prevail even when they think they cannot. Phillip Hughes will never be forgotten while cricket endures and endure it will. I don’t know how long it will be before I can watch cricket and feel like I can permit myself to enjoy it but I know it will happen and I know it is what Phillip Hughes and his family would want. Bouncers will be bowled again. You cannot have Test cricket without them and, while I expect attitudes of intimidation to be toned down for some time, I would be not be surprised, when play resumes, to see a bouncer in the first over. I am sure that the psychologists will be coaching the bowlers to get back on the horse. Michael Clarke told Sean Abbott to hang in there and that he wants to be the first in the nets to face him when the time comes. It is that strength of mind and solidarity that will see healing over time.
I remember when Phillip Hughes burst onto the first class cricket scene in November 2007 just over a week before his 19th birthday. He started with a half century in his debut and, in fact, scored fifties in each of his first four matches. He topped off the season with his maiden first class century in the Shield Final (actually the last year of the ‘Pura Cup’).
The runs kept coming in the next season. I first wrote about Phillip Hughes in December 2008. New South Wales were in the doldrums but Hughes was not. The post was titled ‘The Blues have the Blues Except for Hughes’ and he was the one bright spot for NSW at the time. Hughes had just scored 93 and 108 in a low scoring match, top scoring in each innings and accounting for 58% of the Blues runs for the match. Batting like this resulted in his Test call up in February 2009. Phillip Hughes played his first Test match for Australia, against South Africa, in South Africa, aged just over 20 years. After an inauspicious start, the tour proved to be a joyous occasion for Hughes, the Australian cricket team and Australian cricket in general. The backdrop was that South Africa has just beaten Australia in a Test series in Australia. Defeating the Aussies in the return series would see the Proteas take the number one ranking from Australia for the first time in forever. Nobody gave Australia much chance.
However, nobody told Mitchell Johnson, Phillip Hughes and the rest. A reflection of the changing times in Australian cricket was that three players debuted in the 1st Test: Phillip Hughes, Marcus North and Ben Hilfenhaus. Australia compiled an imposing first innings (466) as North scored a century on debut. The other two debutants (batting at number 1 and number 11) made ducks. Hughes was dismissed fourth ball, slashing at a short ball outside off stump. Never mind.
In the second innings, Hughes got underway in Test cricket with 75, top scoring as he held the Australian innings together. He was the only batsman in the innings to pass 50, was the sixth dismissed and ensured that Australia set a winning total. That innings was played over two days (he was 36 not out overnight) and created a very interesting side note. DRS was very young at that stage and Hughes gloved the ball down the leg side twice, was given ‘not out’ twice and South Africa reviewed neither!
Hughes had a truly triumphant 2nd Test and it is that match that I will remember him by. Phillip Hughes became the youngest batsman to score a century in each innings of a Test match. In the first innings he scored 115 as he and Katich (108) put on 184 for the first wicket. It was here that I saw Hughes in full flight for the first time and his unorthodox style made quite an impression. I had never seen him bat at length and really had not realised what an individualist he was. That never really changed although he did modify his technique over the years as he tried to correct some flaws. But, any way you look at it, he shone. Hughes displayed a lack of self doubt that can only be seen in the confidence of youth. There were no nervous nineties as he brought up his century with a six. Two sixes, in fact. He went from 93 to 105 in consecutive maximums. Hughes made 160 in the second innings and Australia won the match and the series in a landslide.
Thinking about it, Australia had already started the slide down the long, slippery slope. That series was a temporary blip on the back of super human performances by Johnson and Hughes, not a turnaround, as many had hoped. Perhaps that is one reason that Hughes was in and out so much. Selectors can tend to look for quick solutions and be less patient than they otherwise might be. I said earlier that I would not dwell on the selectors. I didn’t say I wouldn’t mention them. Incredibly, Hughes was dropped after just three more Tests – after the Lord’s Test on the 2009 Ashes tour. He had played five Tests and his average was 52.44. I won’t labour the point but it did seem harsh.
Hughes was in and out of the team over the next four years. During this time, he made his ODI debut (but not until January 2013) and scored a century on debut. He played 26 Tests and made three centuries and seven fifties. Six of those fifties were scores of 75 or more, five in the eighties. During that time, he never stopped scoring big in first class cricket but he also spent time improving and looking for answers to some of his perceived weaknesses.
Hughes scored 81 in his second last Test match as he featured in another high point for Australian cricket. We need to remember that Phillip Hughes was involved in a 163 last wicket partnership with Ashton Agar in the 1st Test of the 2013 Ashes series. That was a world record at the time and remains an Australian record. Agar stole the show with a swashbuckling 98 but Hughes showed maturity and determination as he battled hard for 81 in a partnership that was the talking point of the country at the time. Incredibly, he was dropped after just one more Test when, for the second time, he was left out after the Lord’s Test. It is unthinkable that he will never play there, or anywhere, again.
Hughes took the big step of moving to South Australia for the season of 2013-14 to start afresh and this resulted in a revival of the Hughes run machine. Earlier this year he had a prosperous ‘A Team’ series in the top end which saw him score mountains of runs and also become the only Australian to score a double century in a List A 50 over match. It seemed only a matter of time until his recall. Many, including me, would have had him back in the team already. It is almost too painful to speculate that he would have been recalled for the very Test that has been postponed on account of his tragic death.
Hughes’ last Test match in Australia was at the SCG. I saw him play in the 3rd Test against Sri Lanka. He made an excellent 87 and then 34 in the second innings. I have included a photo of him leaving the field with David Warner for lunch on Day two. It’s not a great shot but it is my own so I feel free to share it. I have also included my part in #putoutyourbats. I will participate in whatever way I can in the funeral and the memorial service at the SCG. Nothing will bring Phillip Hughes back and it will be forever sad but we must go through this together.