Phillip Hughes' Death, And The Special Place Of Cricket In Australian Life

Australian captain Bill Woodfull ducks under a ball from Harold Larwood during the infamous 1932–33 Australian Ashes tour. Photo: Central Press/Getty Images
Phillip Hughes celebrates a double ton for SA earlier this month. Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

Australia’s dreaming is woven around cricket like no other sport.

It is our national pastime. It is our summer. We create our mythology around the exploits of The Don, Thommo and Lillee, The Ashes, Bodyline. We anoint gods from their exploits.

The national psyche rises and falls with the Australian team’s fortunes.

We grow up wanting to play cricket for Australia like no other ambition. We raise our children with similar dreams. It’s a crazy desire, given that Phillip Hughes was just the 408th person to wear the Baggy Green in a nation of 23 million.

Australians are more likely to know the name of the captain of the national cricket team than the Prime Minister’s. They certainly hold the likes of The Don, Richie, Punter, Tubby, Gilly, AB, the Chappels, Steve Waugh and now, Pup, in greater esteem. (And yes, we nickname them like besties.) The position, regarded as a greater honour, is something even former PM and cricket buff John Howard acknowledged.

Phillip Hughes had the potential to be as ultimately revered as one of the greats. His achievements – the youngest cricketer ever to score back-to-back centuries in a test match; the first Australian batsman in international one day cricket history to score a century on debut; a batting average in his first year higher than Don Bradman’s – had already captured the imagination of cricket’s tragics.

And now we have tragedy. He is gone. Without warning. With the flash of the bat as the ball rose to meet him. From a bowler – and dear friend – hoping a mistimed shot would lead to a wicket. From the sort of ball that Mitchell Johnson has delivered to countless batsmen in the last two seasons, as a nation cheered him on, proud of such ferocity.

Just three days short of his 26th birthday, Hughes was set to make another first class century – his 26th to match every year of his oh-so-young life.

Many young men die, the repercussions and pain no less important for the families, friends and communities involved. Some, when it happens at work, appear reluctantly, deservedly, on the national stage, as the recent Royal Commission into the loss of four young men during the former federal government’s home insulation scheme revealed in painful detail.

But cricket is different.

This summer, it will be played spontaneously on beaches, in backyards, at picnics and so many other places no other sport fits. It only takes two: a batter and bowler. The bat can be anything you can hit with, the ball anything you can throw.

It is a game that provokes imagination.

For all the elite brilliance we rejoice in, cricket has an egalitarian side like no other sport. Everyone has a go, from the weekend warriors into their 60s in lower grades, to the mums, grandparents and siblings who join in an impromptu family match, not to forget the consistently triumphant national women’s side, the Southern Stars.

Cricket is our escape from the crushing realities of everyday existence. Yesterday, it became a vivid reminder of them, which is why we all feel so especially gutted. So many dreams were stolen in a freak accident, none greater than those of Phillip Hughes.

As the father of a 9-year-old, I will rise at 6.45am tomorrow to find my son already up and dressed in whites, his broad-brimmed hat on, waiting in the lounge room. I’ll spend four hours at cricket, scoring, bowling to the boys, keeping them out of mischief, clapping and encouraging, picking up leftover orange rinds thrown on the ground as the teams change from fielding to batting. I’ll gossip with the parents and tickle the gorgeous younger sisters dragged along to their brother’s sport.

We laugh.

Every week, a parent volunteers to go buy coffees for us all. They shout. That wasn’t planned. It just happens. That’s cricket for you.

We have rituals. We have a bond. And cricket, from training on a Tuesday night, to that slab of Saturdays when I confess at times I’m thinking about the other things I want to be doing, is part of the rhythm of life.

A Test match is a welcome change of pace from the frenetic day-to-day.

But like all sports, cricket teaches you about life. The exhilaration. Competition. Teamwork. Patience. Structure. Practice. And instant decisions. Split-second randomness. Disappointment. Failure. Fear, too.

Once you play in under 10s, with a harder ball, a helmet is compulsory for batsmen. The rules also state that close-in fielders should wear one too. The game’s officials have a safety-first approach to their sport.

None of this can explain what happened to Phillip Hughes. We manage risk and we expose ourselves to risk. We need risks. That is part of the thrill. The contest.

Part of the shock of losing Phillip Hughes is that while many sports are, ultimately, dangerous, cricket seems less lethal, more gentlemanly, despite the ferocity of the contest at the time.

Tens of thousands of parents will be at cricket over the weekend with one eye on their child and their minds on Phillip Hughes. And his parents and siblings.

Because the brilliant young boy from Macksville is also our son.

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