I never liked Phil Hughes much: as a batsman, anyway. To a certain type of cricket tragic like me, the kind of onanistic purist who gets an endorphin rush from a technically correct forward defensive prod, and who swoons at a sweetly timed, textbook push through the covers, I always found Hughes’ “homespun technique” supremely ugly. His squared-up, cock-eyed stance, the way he tried to fidget everything through the leg side, and the ungainly, cross-footed flourish he employed when driving the ball, as if desperately trying to stop himself from playing his pet cut shot, used to leave me cold. (And anyone who’s ever witnessed my own feeble attempts at batting will be overcome with the irony of all this.) For some though, the impish Hughes embodied the brio and elan of what Cricket Australia’s CEO has called “the foundation myth of Australian cricket”: the wide-eyed boy from the bush chasing his dream of a baggy green cap to the big smoke, just like Bradman had done in the ‘20s. But the cow corner hoik that Hughes employed to bring up his maiden test century in South Africa in 2009 always made me cringe whenever it was replayed. To a snobby purist, it was the kind of shot that belonged in the backyard at Christmas, or a lower grade park match on a synthetic wicket, in some dusty suburban nowhere. Indeed, when Hughes fell into his famous form trough against New Zealand, and his technical flaws were ruthlessly exposed by one of the international game’s great bowling carthorses, Chris Martin, I secretly enjoyed it. “Not up to it technically”, was the common pub refrain at the time. “How do you get to test match level without ironing out basic flaws like that?” was the other, from a generation of armchair critics fatted on the deeds and dominance of a technically pure Australian top order featuring names like Ponting, Hayden, Waugh (Mark) and Martyn, to name but a small cadre. For some, Hughes’ peripatetic relationship with the national team symbolised Australia’s post-Waugh (Steve) cricketing decline. And along with Shane Watson, he became the whipping boy for the end of a glorious imperial period in Australian cricket.
So I’m not only shocked, but also slightly embarrassed, at how much his death has affected me. I’m not easily moved to tears, and I abhor cheap sentimentality of the type often exhibited by people who get distressed over the deaths of celebrities they’ve never met, or the fate of a cat with cancer on Harry’s Practice. But like millions of people around the country, many of who aren’t even especially fond of the game, the news of Hughes’ death wrapped an anchor around my heart. I’ve found myself welling up reading his fellow players’ clichéd condolence tweets, and flat out crying over Michael Clarke’s raw press conference. I’ve devoured the obituaries, remembrances and journalistic colour pieces that have plastered the papers in recent days, like a grief porn junkie on a bender. And I’ve absorbed the media consensus as to why this horrible accident is being likened to a “Princess Diana moment” for the country (as ridiculous as that feels to write) and much of it makes sense: the Boy’s Own story of a country kid made good, rising to the pinnacle of the national game, but then tragically losing his life to it. All of which was even harder to fathom because the game of cricket itself, even in the post-Ian Chappell era of sledging and non-contact aggression, coupled with Gen Y’s fetish for sleeve tattoos and other assorted “tough stickers”, is still widely viewed as a genteel sport. Yet we have been handed a tragic reminder, in the form of Hughes, that the game retains what Gideon Haigh terms “a small sliver of risk”, one that had seemingly been rendered benign by a vast array of modern protective equipment.
But these ideas alone fail to explain the depth of the national reaction, including for people like me, who’d previously held no great love for Hughes. If Hughes had just been a common-or-garden Sheffield Shield player for instance, just one rung away from the test team, but still only a journeyman professional, would there have been the same national outpouring of grief? I think everyone would agree not. The player Hughes was batting with at the time of his death, Tom Cooper, is also an international cricketer (albeit for his adopted country of The Netherlands). But I doubt that if Sean Abbott’s relatively innocuous bouncer had felled Cooper instead, that anyone outside of his family, friends and the professional cricket fraternity would be feeling the same way about him, either here or in Holland. The impact of Hughes’ death, for all of the media emphasis on his Macksville banana farming background, his lively, untutored strokeplay and his “cheeky grin”, resonated at a deeper level because of the fundamental role that test cricket still plays in the national psyche, whether we like it or not. We are a young, geographically isolated country relatively untouched by strife, and partly because of this, sport and its mythologies have expanded to fill the space usually taken up by things of greater import, like civil wars, civil rights and battles over self-determination. And test cricket, particularly at this time of year, is psychologically bundled into the Christmas season, and the warm feelings of family and comfy Australiana that come with it. As Waleed Aly remarked on ABC’s Offsiders program, sport is supposed to be about the suspension of disbelief, where for a prescribed period of time, we as both audience and participants hand ourselves over to an arena of purely symbolic combat, wherein we are promised that the worst and most difficult aspects of life will not be present, whether it’s for 90 minutes, three hours or five days. So for a stark reminder of mortality to intrude here, and for a player to be struck down “on stage”, as it were, performing both for himself and for his audience was always going to be a shattering experience.
And I think the fact that Hughes was known primarily as a test player, as opposed to a specialist in one of the game’s shorter formats, speaks to this point. Just days after Hughes’ death, an umpire in Israel was killed after being struck in the face by a cricket ball during the last game of the Israeli one-day national league season. The incident attracted little attention, and probably would’ve garnered even less had it not occurred in the days following the Hughes incident. There have also been numerous other domestic sporting fatalities this year, particularly in racing, where three female jockeys have lost their lives in riding falls, and three horses in this year’s Melbourne Cup had to be euthanased. A female hockey player was tragically killed in 2012 after being struck in the back of the head during a Western Australian league match. Yet none of these incidents ever had a hope of inspiring the sort of response we’ve seen to Hughes’ passing. These people died playing the sports they loved. But they were the wrong sports, in the wrong countries, at the wrong level of competition. Our apportioning of collective grief and significance is never just about the game itself, but also the game’s relative cultural significance. Despite ongoing speculation about the health of test cricket, and its compatibility with a time poor, attention deficit modern world, one thing Hughes’ death has demonstrated is that it remains the only game with this kind of hold on the nation’s heart. Unlike our other myriad sporting obsessions, test cricket is tied to a deeper truth about our sense of self. In the absence of more objectively profound symbols (including ANZAC, which prior to its redux under John Howard had become something of an irrelevance), the test team, and above all its captain, are our totems.
There are always those who reel in disbelief from our national obsession with sport, and wonder why multitudes of deaths from Ebola in Africa, or Aboriginal deaths in custody, or even other fatal sporting accidents fail to excite the country’s tear ducts in the same way Phillip Hughes’ passing has. And I’d argue that these people have a keen awareness of moral hypocrisy and injustice, and a very limited understanding of Australia. In both a global and (white) historical sense, irrespective of things like the ANZUS treaty and Tony Abbott’s risible performance as a G20 host, we are still very much a small country town, and a freshly zoned one at that. And as with most country towns, just like the Macksville that bred Phillip Hughes – places largely untouched by events of great historical moment, and where the eyes of the world rarely fall – sport often assumes a disproportionately grand significance, and local sports stars all the more so. This is not meant as a shallow criticism of insularity or parochialism, however, but merely a statement of fact about our history. We were not forged in the crucible of civil war, or colonial oppression, but rather in the deeds of Bradman and Bodyline, Phar Lap and Laver. In such places, the macro tragedies of a wider world have no immediate, quotidian reference point, and hence generally fail to provoke a strong collective reaction. The vicissitudes of everyday life become all consuming, and sport fills the role of both haven and theatre, where we can safely pretend that Bill Shankly’s famous footballing aphorism is true: That it’s not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that.
There are of course a number of reasons why Phillip Hughes has touched us all so deeply. The plain, unalloyed facts of his death are sad enough. But it has also served to remind us of who we are, and why. Cricket is our real foundation myth. And unlike other countries, we haven’t had to pay for it with our glorious dead. Until now.