We don’t know when death will come, but we do know that it will come, and that it will stick. A man brighter than me said that there is something permanent about death. Fear is different. Fear just comes and goes. It is a fact of life, not death. It is not of itself bad – you may live longer if you fear taipans in long grass – but we all have to come to grips with it.
For better or worse, fear is central to cricket and football the way that we play those games in this country. I knew fear in full measure in both as a kid, but it was always a lot harder in cricket. I got hit twice over the left eye – in the temple, a potential death zone before helmets – and the doctor said that the third strike could well be the last. Footy was okay. If you were like me – like most of us – you just made up the numbers, and you only got near the really rough stuff by something like accident. But in cricket you would be standing there alone – feeling ridiculous in short pants and pads – watching some bronzed Anzac or nuggetty thug drifting away up the hill before hurtling in to unleash a missile that could knock you out cold – as a mate did to me with the first ball of a match. You might be unmanned, maimed, or even worse, and every other bastard just stands there calmly watching.
I thought of this when watching Fox Sports give a two hour review of the two centuries that the late Phillip Hughes made in his second test for Australia. A century (one hundred runs) in a test match – at least one between us and South Africa – is a remarkable achievement. It is the pinnacle for every professional cricketer, and it is the dream of every Australian boy. It is celebrated in that song ‘I made a hundred in the back yard at mum’s.’ Why not? We all did that. Phillip Hughes did it in each innings of a test outside Australia, against the toughest team with the fiercest bowling attack in the world, in just his second test, after he had been cleaned up by Dale Steyn in the first over of the first innings in his first test. He was only twenty; he had not yet come into manhood’s estate, either by the old reckoning or by the facts of life.
If you have not stood in fear against a fast bowler who might make a real bloody mess of you, you will not understand just what Hughes did in Durban. The Springboks are like the All Blacks in football. They are bred and expected to win, and things can get very ugly if they are not winning. They had beaten us here, and they were looking very nasty after we won the first test there. Dale Steyn was on the verge of becoming the best fast bowler around. Morkel is very tall; he was then erratic, but from his height, the throat ball is vicious. Steyn runs straight at you with the distilled and pungent threat of a blue eyed Boer. He has a smile snared from Rasputin and Hitler. I cannot think of a higher compliment to a fast bowler. His first ball of the match was on a perfect line and length, and it dipped in late at about 140 k’s. It was aimed to crash into the top of the middle stump – if Hughes had not hit it. (And if he had missed it, God only knows how history may have unfolded.) But Hughes did hit it, and he went on to make a hundred – getting there with two consecutive sixes; and then in the second innings, he repeated the dose.
After a while, the South Africans decided to work this kid over, and go for the throat. They know what they are doing. At one time, the then Australian Captain, Ricky Ponting, was at the other end. The Punter is as hard and tough a competitor as you can get. (We do not get leadership from our politicians in this country, but we expect and demand it from our national sports leaders.) The Punter recalls that the other side could be ‘pretty threatening and they were going in hard with the ball and a bit of verbal.’ If I may say so, there is an element of understatement there. I cannot imagine any contest as intense and personal as this in any international sport, and the South Africans can be as brutal – that is the word, brutal – as us. The Punter went on. ‘I thought I’d better go down there and check how he was’ – well, after all, the little bugger was hardly any taller than the Punter, and he was only 20! – ‘but before I got there, he looked up and grinned at me. ‘I’m absolutely loving this’, he said.’
Now, I wonder if the Punter or someone else used some editorial discretion there – ‘absolutely’ sounds more BBC or even public school than Nambucca or Macksville – but it is a great story, and it sounds dead true, apart from the fact that we have the authority of our captain for it. Why wouldn’t the kid be enjoying himself? This is just what he was sent to us to do. As I recall, he had taken one of them for five fours in one over. (It was either Steyn or Morkel.) It was just this feat of David Hookes against the English captain in the Centenary Test that still brings moisture to the eyes of old timers like me today. (I was about six k’s from the MCG when it happened, but I could hear the eruption of a nation, and I can still hear it.) In the first hundred there were 17 fours and two sixes. Hughes had not just taken on the best; he humiliated them. He got to 150 in the second innings with a six off Steyn with the new ball.
But the shot that caught my eye was not a shot at all. In the second innings, the South Africans concentrated on the body. Morkel found his rhythm and his venom. One ball reared up like a cobra at Hughes’ throat, but at north of 140 k’s. It flicked something and was taken by an exuberant keeper to one of those blood-curdling in your face appeals. The replay showed clearly that the ball had been deflected and caught, but it had come from the crest on the chest of the young Australian, and not from his gloves. The replays showed Hughes arching his back almost balletically to stay out of the way of a missile that had locked on to him – but he had dropped his hands cold and so removed them out of the risk zone, as if by instinct. All this happened in the fraction of a second. The South African commentators were sceptical of the less than text-book technique of their young nemesis, and they were almost audibly praying that it would undo him – as it would for a while – but even they were struck by the perfection of this response. The next ball was at about the same height, but a bit wider, and it was smacked to the fence as if nothing had happened. It was not cut, driven, or stroked – it was smacked, as if Mr Morkel had been caught in naughty act.
The South Africans are proud as a nation of their cricket, for good reason. I can imagine how outraged they were. If you believe that your side has an interest in inflicting lasting damage on the enemy, and the cricketers that we admire do, then this young man was bred to do just that. The shy boyish grin on the baby face just rubbed it in.
This was a combination of eye and grit in a young man against the toughest in the world. It was precisely their lack of anything like this that saw the English get thrashed five –nil against an attack that carried similar venom, and leave themselves exposed to suggestions that technique was not all that they were light on for.
So, Hughes’ heroics in Durban are the stuff that dreams are made of and talked about long after our insubstantial pageant has faded. But they did not take place at the MCG before 80,000 fans, and the dour schoolmasters prevailed on technique. It was as if we just drifted into the miasma of our ordinariness and our disdain or fear of the new. Australia is a land forever wrestling with its own emptiness.
I cannot help thinking that we handled this young champion badly, and that this is part of the tragedy that is now before us. If there was a flaw, it was not with Hughes, but with us. It is inconceivable that the Poms could produce a kid like that – and it is even more inconceivable that they would then keep dropping him while he put together 26 centuries before he got to 26. And we fumbled with Hughes during a period when our cricket management was at its desolate worst.
The film of his rawness and exuberance at Durban brought home to me the rawness of our loss. Phillip Hughes could have been – we will never know – coming into his flowering time, but however that may be, he had something that this country is crying out for – a true Australian hero. Tina Turner is wrong; we do need another hero. In the awful sea of mediocrity that beats around our public life, here was a young man from the bush who had a gift from God at our natural game, who loved the game as much as his country, and who could and did lift us up. Who knows? He might even have defied history, and revived an extinct species – a sportsman whom kids might decently look up to. Sweet heavens, we have reached the stage where only those as old as the babyboomers can remember the time when such people walked among us.
John Eales was a distinguished Australian captain of another international sport, rugby union. He is as decent and sensible a sportsman – and I do mean sportsman – as this country has seen. He was moved to say that it had been a week where perspective had truly been put in perspective. All sports share fear, and we all know the fear of failure. ‘Those who can’t handle the fears, any of them, fail in the most public of theatres.’ Eales commented on what we learn from dealing with sport and fear, and said that ‘Phillip Hughes and his gracious ways will never be forgotten, and they will continue to teach all of those who observed him from near and far.’ But what stood out was the advice that was given to Eales by his father before every game he played, from the cricket fields to the rugby paddocks, from the Under 8 Ashgrove Emus to the World Cup Finals for Australia: ‘Remember, John, it’s only a game, go out there and enjoy yourself.’ That is what we are missing, and it is just what we lost with Phillip Hughes. He actually played cricket as a game.
And although so permanent, death is so random. As a man most cruelly tormented by fate said ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport.’ The Australian journalist Nicole Jeffery movingly said this: ‘This one man’s life speaks to us in ways that we are all still struggling to comprehend. His death shreds our sense of justice in the world. He was one of ours, his story is our story.’ In saying this, Nicole was referring to the cosmic lottery of King Lear, and she was recalling those lovely words of comfort of John Donne that are so right for us just now:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
If Plato was right, and there is somewhere some ideal form for everything, then this young man would represent my Platonic form of an Australian cricketer. I am not sure if there is such a thing as an Australian character, but I am confident that our reaction to the death of Phillip Hughes is telling us a lot about that question. Perhaps this is one of those times that does not so much reveal our character as shape it.
As it happens, I rarely sense that I am on song with our songlines, but I feel it now, as I did when little Lionel Rose outlasted Fighting Harada with his left and brought us back home a world title from Tokyo; when our Kathy brought home the gold in Sydney and took a whole country off the hook; when we relieved the New York Yacht Club of some redundant old silverware, and when Hookesy took the Poms’ captain for five fours in one over on that glorious day on my own home ground – in my own bloody back yard, mate. Let’s face it, we will only ever see it here in sport.
Now you might see why the shocking death of this young cricketer caused older men in Australia like me to think back on their boyhood and then break down and cry.