Cricket is etched in our national soul. The Australian Test cricket team pre-dates the nation by over 23 years. Our cricketers were, in the words of the great cricket writer Ray Robinson, “the first Australians to give Australia an identity”. They still do so today. And we feel even closer to them than we did in 1877 because they are there, on our televisions, all summer, every summer.
Phillip Hughes, who died on 27 November after being struck on his neck by a cricket ball while batting for South Australia, had already been on our screens for six years. He was only 25 and we expected him to be with us as a player for another decade. Even so, the extraordinary national outpouring of grief – his family funeral was broadcast live on television and a state funeral will follow – suggests that Phillip was more than merely
a fine batsman.
Like Sir Donald Bradman, Stan McCabe, Doug Walters and Matt Hayden before him, Phillip appeared out of the obscurity of the bush with an autodidactic batting technique, an iron will, a sharp cricket brain and an insatiable appetite for runs. As with many country boys, he never stopped using the word “me” instead of “my”. “Mate” peppered his speech. He was a very Australian Australian cricketer.
In Phillip’s character, one could also see the best of the modern Australia. Everywhere he went, he made friends with people of all backgrounds. It was his mate from the New South Wales under-15 team, Shariful Islam, who recommended Phillip to Neil D’Costa, who became Phillip’s friend, manager and batting coach and arranged for his move as a teenager from the family banana farm in Macksville (population 2,786) to Sydney, to pursue his dream of playing for Australia.
During county stints in the UK, Phillip forged friendships with Nick Compton, the Harrow-educated grandson of Denis Compton; Moeen Ali, a devout English Muslim of Pakistani descent; and Brett D’Oliveira, the English grandson of Basil D’Oliveira, a mixed-race cricketer who fled apartheid South Africa. He loved modern Australian vernacular – when speaking to his mates, especially on the field, he often used the words “braz” and “bruz”, as in: “We just love batting, aye, bruz?” Or: “We don’t study, bruz, we make hundreds!” He was true to his maxims. Besides scoring more first-class hundreds – 26 – than any other current Australian player under 33, he was, without doubt, one of the worst spellers our country has ever produced.
Phillip Hughes grew up in a tight-knit family: his father, Gregory, was his best mate. That would never change. The big-boned baby quickly grew to the size and shape typical of most great Australian batsmen – short, strong and mobile. At 18, he made his debut for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield, the domestic first-class competition. At 19, he became the youngest batsman to score a hundred in a Shield final. In early 2009, aged 20, he broke into the national team and in his second game he became the youngest batsman to score a century in both innings of a Test.
His next six years in Australian colours were topsy-turvy as the selectors, unnerved by his unorthodox technique, dropped him thrice from the Test and one-day teams. But he maintained the infectious, positive attitude that made him one of the most loved members of the dressing room. His team-mates’ affection was reflected in the plethora of nicknames he was given: Hughesy, Hugh, Hugo, Hughie, Hugh-Dog, Hughbert, Bert, Bruzzy, June, Pip and Pippa.
Each time he was dropped, he responded by working harder and scoring more runs. At 24, he became the first Australian to score a one-day international hundred on debut and set a world-record last-wicket Test partnership with Ashton Agar against England. Just four months ago, he became the first Australian to score a one-day double-hundred. He dedicated the knock to his late grandpa, who’d passed away just a week earlier.
He was just coming into his cricketing prime. Modern Australian Test batsmen, especially those first picked when very young, such as Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh, generally peak between the ages of 27 and 32. Phillip would have turned 26 on Sunday 30 November. In the past year, during his latest period outside the Test team, the Australian captain-batsmen Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke had all publicly agreed on one thing: Phillip Hughes would go on to play 100 Tests and score 10,000 Test runs for his country.
Off the field, he remained a relaxed, uncomplicated country lad with a cheeky grin on his face. If he bumped into someone he knew – even a journalist – he’d always stop to say hi and chat. He had a knack for remembering people’s names, even those he’d only met once before.
He spent all of his holiday time back on the family farm and invested his cricket earnings in a cattle-farming business with his father. They christened it Four O Eight Angus – a reference to Phillip Hughes’s cherished baggy green cap number.
As he lay in St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, around a hundred cricketers went to visit him. A roster had to be set up so they could each spend time with their little mate. He had earned more than enough good karma in his life for a miracle. His family, his friends and the nation prayed for it. It never came. And we are all gutted. He was, as we say in Australia, just a really good bloke.
S B Tang is an Australian cricket writer