News

A freak accident has cut short the career of a talented young cricketer and stunned a sports-loving nation. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Phillip Hughes, gone too soon

Phillip Hughes celebrates scoring a Test century against Sri Lanka in 2011.
Credit: AFP

“It’s bloody sad,” the barkeep tells me, and his eyes are fixed elsewhere. He’s forgotten what he was doing. There’s a melancholic flatness to his voice. His laconism is not indifference, but resignation to the randomness of things and recognition of the uselessness of words.

We have just heard the news, and are in shock. Once we state our shock, we simultaneously concede it will not be that of his family or friends, nor close to the ineffable torture of the bowler, Sean Abbott.

For those millions of us who weren’t there when Phillip Hughes was struck, much less knew the man, I suspect most couldn’t, or wouldn’t, anticipate death. Professional cricketers don’t die playing their sport, least the gritty and endearing Hughes. To paraphrase American poet and playwright Edna St Vincent Millay, sport is the kingdom where nobody dies. A place where fans escape banality, knit mythologies, and share and refine them with each other.

But the staff at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney knew better, or at least they knew something else. Hughes wasn’t a symbol of patience and grace and country modesty. He was a patient. And as they mapped his trauma and made him comfortable, we the fans lurched towards the same understanding: we are all flesh and bone.

Before the accident, though, Phillip Hughes existed as something else. He attracted our faith in his 2009 Test debut against South Africa in Johannesburg, where he scored precisely zero in his first innings. He lasted four balls, and was just 20 years old. But in the second innings he scored 75, and we began to get a sense of his talent, assurance. And also of his inelegant, unorthodox style buttressed with a determination that recalled former Australian captain Steve Waugh.

Incredibly, after his debut duck, he scored 115 in the first innings of the next Test and 160 in the second innings. Joyously, he registered his maiden ton with consecutive sixes, and suddenly Phillip Hughes became something else: a public reminder of pushing through, backing yourself, dismissing ignominious beginnings. This is how we embrace athletes and the games they comprise: as loose, fun fables for our own lives.

Which is one of the reasons we mourn Hughes. Some will make appeals to proportionality – reminders of the men, women and children murdered each week, or those who take their own lives in desperation or die young due to illness. Those deaths are no more or less important – our world is saturated with tragedy – but Hughes existed in a rarefied space, played upon a cultural touchstone, and participated in our imaginations.

It is not possible or desirable to exist in a permanent state of communion with the world’s suffering, but with those who have left fingerprints on our culture we feel as if we know them. Most of us know this isn’t true – at best it’s tenuous – but it establishes communion, and a communal sense of loss.

Now the artifice is broken, that sport might distract us from our fragility. We are forced to realise that beneath our fond cartoon appraisals of athletes there exists the same, unchanging vulnerability that defines all of us. And of course we know this, deep down, but we lie about our mortality all the time.

Phillip Hughes had performed excellently in domestic cricket for years – his early average mirrored Bradman’s – and had only recently moved to South Australia to distinguish himself, away from a talent-soaked NSW team.

In this week’s game, against his old state, he was batting for selection in the Australian Test team. The first Test against India – its status now doubtful at time of writing – was due to begin next Thursday in Brisbane. An injury to his old housemate, Australian captain Michael Clarke, revealed an opportunity. Hughes hadn’t played for the national team since July last year, but this smiling, grateful young man had never given up.

At the time he was struck by a rising delivery, he was on 63 not out, eyeing a century and a possible recall to Test cricket.

It is hard to make sense of the insensible. It will be harder still for the bowler, Sean Abbott. Abbott made his debut for Australia only last month, in a one-day match against Pakistan. He is 22. There is little to say about this other than it was an accident, and he will receive endless succour from friends and family.

“The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway wrote, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” We desire that this is eventually true of Abbott, in whatever form that strength assumes.

There will be discussions on safety equipment, as there will be bitter reflections on how we once complained that the game had come to favour batsmen. They will come. But let us remember Phillip Hughes, a grinning farm boy who did good on his talent. Sydney journalist Ben Mckelvey tweeted soon after the news: “Not much solace when young people die, but Hughes lost consciousness at a place that he loved, doing what he loved. That’s not nothing.”

It’s a sweet and resonant reflection, but more sweet and more resonant for us, the people who don’t know Hughes. We must parse the public shock from the private. We can reflect on Hughes’s spirit, lovely as it was, but for his intimates there will be only a dreadful pall of disbelief.

In time, we hope, their pain will be slightly softened by this knowledge: that’s not nothing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 29, 2014 as "Gone too soon". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.