The beginning of the first Australian innings of the Johannesburg test in 2009 saw a young man taking guard at the batting crease. His churlish looks did justice to his age: 20. In the next test he was to paint the series with the brushstrokes of his brilliance. If batting is considered an art then Philip Joel Hughes seemed destined to be a great, even though different, artist. Born and brought up at a Banana farm in Macksville, New South Wales, Philip bent and swayed like a Banana when the Proteas bowled bouncer after bouncer to him. That it was a much more docile bouncer that got him during that faithful Tuesday represented the ultimate irony. The ‘will he, won’t he’ story that began when the Australian selectors dropped him after Andrew Flintoff kept tucking him off in Ashes 2009, is now officially over. The time for Philip to achieve his greatness has run out. The climax of the story shall never be there as our protagonist is no more, leaving the serene game shocked, its beauty turned into brutality, the aspect of its courage turned fatal.
A thought must go out to Sean Abbot, the young New South Wales all-rounder who bowled that seemingly innocuous bouncer. Philip was one of his best mates, one he had shared many dressing rooms with. How he might be cursing himself is beyond us. How he might be moaning the loss is beyond us.
If one has seen the old videos of batsmen batting against fiery fast bowlers, one would understand that every cricket innings is a little act of courage. That ball can hurt anyone and everyone. That is why Dale Steyn quipped a couple of years back that he loves cricket because it is the only thing that allows someone to kill someone else legally. That is why this death makes us all sad. It reminds us of how thin the line between survival and death can be. It reminds us of the hidden brutality of the game we all have loved and cherished. It reminds us of the loss that one might incur while pursuing joy.
And that is why there might be some voices to curb the use of bouncer. Always a weapon in a fast bowler’s armory, this not the first time the bouncer has come under scrutiny. To see the extent and dangers of its usage one can see the movie Fire in Babylon. The response to the Australian crowd’s chants of “Lillee Lillee Lillee… Kill Kill Kill” from the West Indies was to find a pace battery of their own and bring an end to the Australian hegemony. The opposition’s fear of hurt took them to the top of the cricketing world and made them stay there. And for the bigger picture this threat gave us bullies and heroes alike. There is a reason that Sunil Gavaskar is cherished all over the world as a hero. There is a reason why Ian Botham hooking Dennis Lillee off his eyebrows in Ashes 1981 forms an enduring story. And that is precisely why the bouncer should stay, for it provides an aspect that nothing else in the game does. Courage has no alternative and certainly no alter ego. What Mitchell Johnson did to the Poms in last year’s Ashes is self-explanatory now. Cricket is a game of courage where the fall of the bravest might be inevitable as well.
It is with this sense of inevitability that this death shall be treated. With just 100 cases of such injuries present in the literature, Philip’s was a freakish accident to say the least. But there is hope that new designs of helmets will be suggested (and may be supported by players). Whatever may be the case, the game shall move on as it always as. Even if normalcy returns one day, the game might never be the same for people whose lives’ soundtrack is cricket this incident was unfathomable enough for it occurrence to leave permanent scars. In the end one can just hope that Philip had some idea about the immense joy he provided to us.
Philip Joel Hughes…… “A loss, not a waste.. 63 not out”