27 November 2014, will be a date forever etched in the Australian and International Cricket Calendar, as the day Cricket lost one of its prodigious talents.
Phil Hughes passed away Thursday, after being knocked unconscious by a bouncer, during a Sheffield Shield match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, causing a vertebral artery dissection that led to a subarachnoid haemorrhage.
For all their many divergent views, the leading lights of Australian Cricket all shared enormous belief in Phil. A belief that he would soon bloom into one of Australia’s most prolific Test batsmen, fulfilling a promise first demonstrated on a precocious tour to South Africa in 2009. This hope is why the grief about Hughes’ death at 25 is both universal, and shattering. Phil always had time on his side, or so we thought.
Phillip Joel Hughes was born on November 30, 1988, the son of Greg and Virginia owners of a banana farm in the northern New South Wales town of Macksville. Here Hughes first learned the scything method with that exquisite cut that he would eventually unleash upon all unsuspecting bowling attacks, from junior and country cricket to Sydney grade and the Sheffield Shield for NSW.
His batting and life coach around this time, Neil D’Costa who had also shepherded Australian Captain Michael Clarke in his early days saw in Hughes, another great Australian batsman in the making. “This kid,” he was often heard to say, “will go all the way.”
The hallmarks for greatness were evident when in 2009, after accumulating a multitude of runs in the domestic circuit, Hughes was selected to fill the Matthew Hayden void in the Australian Test team for the tour of South Africa.
After being dismissed for an early duck in his first international innings, Hughes went on to score a brisk 75 in the seconds innings and displayed his unarguable talent by becoming both the youngest Australian since Doug Walters to score a Test century and the youngest player from any country to score a century in both innings of a Test match in the second Test of the tour.
The sky would’ve been the limit for the player, however an unorthodox technique contributed to a fallibility of getting caught out at slip or gully. His method gradually reshaped into something more rounded and grounded in the game’s fundamentals something that would eventually mature and ultimately last. It was still in transition when Hughes was caught Martin Guptill, bowled Chris Martin four innings out of four against New Zealand in 2011.
The search for runs and a sustained stint in the Test team initiated a move from New South Wales to South Australia in 2012, where Adelaide felt more like home than Sydney. Regular visits back home kept him uncomplicated and humble in his demeanour and words. No matter where he played, Hughes was never anything other than a wholehearted, determined and slightly cheeky country kid.
His final Test appearances took place in the Ashes, where yet again he was dropped when he might have enjoyed a longer stint in the team. An unbeaten 81 in the first Test at Trent Bridge hinted at the player Hughes was on the way to becoming.
On tour, Hughes was always excellent company irrespective of the setting or mood. His acceptance of the reserve role was fairly impressive in a game where many are in a rush for their chance. Continued runs would eventually be too strong to ignore, so why bother fretting about it.
Hughes showed that sort of consistency in a top-end series for Australia A, twice accumulating double-hundreds against South African opposition. Becoming the first Australian to score not only an ODI Century on debut but also the country’s first Limited Overs double hundred Hughes’ appetite for runs was undiminished. There was so much time.
As a left handed batsman and occasional cricket enthusiast myself, Phil Hughes represented an idol and a hope to those not blessed with the all-round batting gifts, the greats of the game were bestowed with. His possible reentry and hopefully permanent establishment in the Australian Team for all three international formats would’ve marked a watershed moment for believers in the age old adage “Perseverance, secret of all triumphs”.
Alas that was not to be owing to one fateful Sheffield Shield game on the 25th of November.
At the SCG against New South Wales, Hughes played as though he could see a Test match in his very near future. This was an innings by a more considered and mature young man. Many had likened Hughes to Justin Langer and Hayden, prodigious youngsters with less than perfect techniques who grew from harsh early Test lessons to emerge as wiser and ultimately dominant Test batsmen. Hughes fully embodied this as he moved into the 60s.
Sean Abbott then delivered a regulation bouncer. Hughes had already avoided a few short balls, but chose to hook this offering, a stroke added more consistently to his shot locker to allow more scoring avenues. Hughes arrived early, swiveling to meet ball with bat, unfortunately miscalculating the pace ever so slightly. A one in a billion blow caused him to reel, stagger, and then collapse. He made 63, not out.
Australian Cricketers past and present, mentors, pundits and teammates alike all went to Hughes’ bedside at St Vincent’s Hospital, praying for a miracle that never arrived. The entire Cricket world united in their admiration for Hughes, and were now together in grief. Improbably, impossibly and inconsolably, time had run out.
Photo credits to www.mirror.co.uk , www1.skysports.com