It was on a clouded over Coimbatore morning that a 21 year old me first felt fear on a cricket pitch. It was a routine practice game, our business school against the engineering school, and the ball was doing a bit under dark skies. I was a cocky young fast bowler who did not feel the need to wear any protection apart from my pads & gloves. We were 5 down for 60 or so runs in a 25 over game, and I walked in to try to set a good enough score. I took guard on middle stump & looked up. The umpire called right arm fast & took his position. I stood on the back foot as I’m wont to, and watched the ball from the bowler’s hand, as I was taught to. It bounced midway & before I knew it, I had somehow moved my head away & watched the ball go, just inches from my head. I took a step back, bent down, took off my gloves, breathed in deeply, & called for a helmet.
I have never played without a helmet since that day. Not in university games, not in club games, not in corporate tournaments.
And I always say a prayer before I go in.
What happened to Phillip Hughes was a freak accident, something that will make old-timers, the ones who know a thing or two about life, sigh & tell us how everything is just unfair sometimes. We, the young, don’t have their wisdom & resilience to fall back on. We don’t know why it should be this way; we don’t understand.
It is this disbelief that we cricket fans had to deal with this last week. The loss to his family & his teammates is incomprehensible. All of us who’ve played team sport know the bonds that form between the people we play with; the word Michael Clarke used often in these last few days has been ‘brothers’. To the players, past & present, who’ve ever worn the baggy green test cap of Australia, the feeling of loss must be immense. And for his small & beautiful farming family, ‘salt-of-the-earth Aussies’, as Clarke described them, anything we can say & do will never be enough. They’ve lost a son, a brother, and a friend. May they have the strength to get through this & celebrate an Australian hero’s life.
But what does the ordinary cricket fan feel? The college student in Lahore, the retired gentleman in Leeds, the club bowler in Kandy, the school teacher in Wellington, how is he supposed to feel when he settles down again to watch the game he loves? Phillip Hughes’ death is almost without precedence in cricket, in that no celebrated young player has ever died on the pitch for a long time now. There have been injuries galore, of course, but none like this.
Which is why it left the cricket fan gutted. The tributes were spontaneous, the eulogies heartfelt, & the tears beautifully, tragically real. We have talked a lot about the spirit of cricket in the last few years, mostly in relation to inane & forgettable incidents, but if even there was a time that phrase could be invoked, it was this. The cricketing community is a small, exclusive sliver of the planet, one of the happy remnants of colonialism, and it came together in beautiful tribute to a man who played the game they loved. #PutOutYourBats was stunning in its simplicity & heartwarming in its scope. This game still means something, it said, the flame of the gentleman’s game still burns in the heart of its fans; for this game, its players are nothing short of heroes.
I’ve watched Hughes playing on television several times, and there was something about him, the little guy & his extravagant cut shots. There was something of the mongrel in him, a quality Ponting had. You saw the fight in him, you saw the grit. You saw that he was going somewhere, you saw that he wanted to. That much was evident to anyone who saw him play. But it is only now, after I read about who he was away from the game, and where he came from, that I realise something more.
Young Hughes was so wonderfully Australian.
Son of Banana farmers in the country town of Macksville, a lover of cattle & the outdoors, Phillip Hughes was the country boy with a dream of playing for his country. And he did it, with a homegrown technique that so memorably rattled the Proteas in that wonderful test match. How similar is his story to Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s; they are both small town boys who rose to be national heroes, and Hughes was already being talked about as a future captain. And like MS, Hughes in his beaming smile, slight golden stubble & confident swagger, personified his proud cricketing nation. He was Australian, & it showed.
Cricket is not going to be the same again. Hughes’ shadow will fall on every ground cricket is played from now on; its mortal peril is now painfully evident. And we fans will brace ourselves every time a player is hit. But I think we can give our players something more. Something that perhaps will give them a bit more strength when they put on their pads. Something I think they will value more than our concern.
We can give them respect.
The player knows he is in danger when he goes out there. He knows that he might be hurt today. But that is the game. If we say that cricket builds character & discipline, that it makes us better men, it is because of a reason. This game we love tests everything we have, technique, resolve, determination, patience, but most of all, courage. In a time when we blame our players for not playing well enough, for not trying hard enough, for making too much money, or in extreme cases, when we throw stones at their houses, it would do us well to remember that, as Simon Barnes put it, every innings is an act of courage. Maybe, just maybe, our respect would give them a little bit more of it.
Where to, now, for the cricketing community, then? Michael Clarke ended his speech at an emotional funeral with these words, & I don’t think it can be put better.
“We must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on.”
Farewell Phillip, you little beauty, you.