I write the following with no shortage of trepidation and uncertainty, because even though I am expressing personal thoughts on Phillip Hughes, I know I don’t belong in his story, and nor do I have any interest in inserting myself into it. I never met Hughes, but like so many others I feel an almost visceral urge to humbly pay tribute to him. His death has stirred something deep and intangible in so many of us, and so what comes next is an attempt to reflect some light from the perspective of both a journeyman grade cricketer and an Australian.
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Phillip Hughes was my favourite player. Strange to say that about someone younger than you, but true nonetheless. He was so good, for so many reasons. I hope the following conveys why.
To start, there is a point that I will – with hesitancy – try and articulate as a cricketer from Hughes’ generation. Any of us who experienced even a modicum of success as juniors will probably have entertained the thought that we might well be the next Bradman or Chappell or Waugh or Ponting. Of course we wouldn’t admit it. Dreams were real and we wondered if the stage would one day be ours. What normally happened then is we would emerge from our usually sheltered urban bubble to discover there were cricketers, usually from the country though they could be from anywhere, who were vastly better than us. Some were older, some were younger; either way your eyes were opened. There are just so many young people who are good at cricket in this country, and deep down everyone is desperate. It’s just so bloody competitive.
And of every single kid who ever had a dream to be the next Australian cricketing legend, Phillip Hughes had the best claim to it. In our generation, it was Hughes. Too many centuries. Too many runs. Too much time. It was him.
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When I was young my Dad used to tell me stories about the fortune he had to play a very small amount of junior cricket with Allan Border. It was the late 60s and they both would have been about 11 or 12. He told me these stories at the time Border was both captain and hero of Australian cricket, so Dad’s fleeting association with him some twenty five years earlier was about as close to the Baggy Green as I’d ever felt.
I was 8 years old at the time and had decided that I would play for both Australia in cricket and the North Sydney Bears in Rugby League. So I wanted to know from my Dad what made Border so special. One story stuck out.
He told me about a time when an astute coach (probably just the Dad of a kid in the side) saw something that separated Border at that age from the rest. As always with these things, it was just one moment. Apparently Border danced down the pitch to a spinner, and instead of blasting the ball with a full flurry of the bat, he merely softened his wrists so as to deliberately manipulate the ball between mid-off and cover for a boundary. Remember, he was 11. Sure there was probably an athleticism to it, but the point was that Border wasn’t just an extraordinarily coordinated sportsman – he already had a seemingly in-built dedication to the craft of batsmanship over anything else. For Border, finding the gap was more important than belting it. He wanted runs and he knew how to get them.
There is a point to this. Some years later I had the fortune to play against Phillip Hughes at a place very significant to me – North Sydney Oval. Hughes was about 18, already plundering attacks in 1st grade, and this day was no different. I watched his innings mostly from the outfield as he set about methodically reeling in our meager total.
Even then most of us knew full well he was too good for our arena, and if his easy 56 not out wasn’t enough to demonstrate that, then for me one other moment did. In the context of his career it’s completely innocuous but I still remember it vividly. Our captain, Glenn Aitken – a good cricketer who has led a distinguished career in first grade – sauntered in with the aim of capturing the key wicket as he so often did. However this time he dropped a bit short. From my esteemed vantage point of deep square leg I could see Hughes, and in the background I could see fieldsmen at backward point, point and cover-point. We knew that’s where Hughes liked to score, so we essentially crowded that area. Of course it made no difference. As the ball sat up, Hughes smartly arranged himself into position to cut. In my mind this is where time slowed down. Cricketers will tell you the best players are able to make things seem that way, and it’s a poor cliché to invoke the famous bullet scene in The Matrix but that’s the best comparison I can make. Hughes props, waits, deliberates over where he wants to put it, and with surgical precision puts it there. Between the fielders to the boundary, that is. Another one.
And so now I had seen what my Dad had described more than a decade earlier. It was that elusive word: class. We know it has something to do with having more time, but there’s no formula for it; you just know it when you see it.
Even though he was thoroughly dismantling my team, I secretly treasured the moment then, and I will do more so now. It was an honour to even be in the same match as him.
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For an amateur competition, one of the hardest things to do in grade cricket is attain respect. It’s probably borne out of the deeply guarded dream many have nurtured since childhood of ‘making it’. Whether on the field of play, in the dressing room or even socially over a few beers, club cricketers probe for any weakness in anyone to test out their credentials, trying find out whether they’re worthy of the tougher arenas that lie ahead. This dog-eat-dog culture is slowly emerging as a subject of satire through social media, but it still remains. In many ways it’s a Lord of the Flies situation, as everyone subtly looks over their shoulders at their competitor.
For that very reason forensic analysis of the scores that appear in the Sunday paper are of deep interest to anyone involved in cricket, although no-one admits it. I did it – I do it – religiously. And there was no name more fascinating to search for than P Hughes. Why? Because this unassuming, unaffected champion – with zero reputation for engaging in the macho side-show of grade cricket, would invariably have the most runs against his name, again and again and again.
It didn’t matter who he was playing for, whether it was grade, or academy teams, or NSW Second XI, or eventually NSW, it was always bewildering to consider how he was continually able to do it. It quickly got to the point where a failure was the surprise. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who especially looked forward to seeing how many he’d made.
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Hughes’ technique is often referred to as ‘homespun’ or ‘unorthodox’. Cricket is sometimes suspicious of difference, whether it be in personality or playing style, and our country can have the irking tendency to churn out cookie-cutter cricketers who occasionally appear more concerned with looking good than with the art of their respective craft. This did not apply to Phillip Hughes. First, second and third on his list of priorities were runs.
It was amazing how often Hughes left so-called experts exasperated as he again defied their conventional understanding of batting. You weren’t supposed to slash the ball when it was close to your body, especially when the ball was new. No one else did it; there was too much risk. Yet Hughes scored countless centuries and won too many matches this way.
His technique was polarising and we all had a view. On a personal level I used to enjoy sparring back and forth with a very dear mentor and coach of mine about Hughes’ technique. For what it’s worth, my contention was (and still is) that the piles of runs he scored rendered his technique sound by definition, and that Hughes did not need to reassess the way he played; experts need to reassess, evolve, or add some flexibility to their understanding of sound technique.
Hughes evolved anyway, and kept scoring runs.
Another reason to love him: the way he batted gave hope to every kid who could only ever generate power by using the pace of the ball. Of course Hughes could play a huge range of shots, but his cut shot especially was a win for the little guy and a symbol of defiance towards stiff cricketing convention.
In short, he was so good he could break a rule that no one else was good enough to break.
Everyone else’s corridor of uncertainty was Hughes’ corridor of certainty and I loved that. We now rightly celebrate his style, as we always should have.
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As the news broke of his predicament, I couldn’t help but reflect on how hauntingly poetic his final scene was, and will remain. The opening batsman, playing the most attacking and respected and bravest of shots, yet again climbing the mountain to a century and a recall to the Australian team, at his spiritual home: the Sydney Cricket Ground.
And while there is absolutely no consolation, he now rightly attains cricketing immortality. It’s of the sort that Archie Jackson occupies in the Australian cricketing canon, as beautifully described by Gideon Haigh a few days ago, but it’s also his alone. He knew cricket. He lived it, breathed it, and then died with it.
It’s come too early, but he takes his place in the highest echelons the game has to offer. He also takes his place as a legend of the Sydney Cricket Ground. The place is now his, as many of us always suspected it would be.
By Sam Perry