Phillip Hughes’ death has changed everything

The funeral for cricketer Phillip Hughes turned into a celebration of his life on Wednesday despite the grief and sorrow still evident from his death. (AP Photo/Daniel Munoz, Pool)
The funeral for cricketer Phillip Hughes turned into a celebration of his life on Wednesday despite the grief and sorrow still evident from his death. (AP Photo/Daniel Munoz, Pool)

In Adelaide, on the last leg of a theatre tour, I’ve been able to witness at close quarters the nation’s reaction to the tragic death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes.

To those who knew him or of him, the last 10 days must have seemed surreal, so cataclysmic were the consequences of the ball that ended his short life. As for the sport itself, Hughes’s death has sent shock waves throughout a game that until recently, thought itself impervious to such seismic events.

Hughes, an uncomplicated yet supremely gifted cricketer, had his whole life in front of him. Indeed, at the age of 25, he was already planning for life after cricket. A passionate cattleman, he had plans for developing his own pedigree herd of Angus cows. One day, when his pads were finally put away, he planned to concentrate on his cattle.

As for his cricketing abilities, the statistics speak for themselves. I only saw him live a handful of times, but it was enough to confirm him as a batsman of rare talent.

Of course, cricket has always been a dangerous game. The infamous ‘Bodyline’ tour of 1932-33, when English bowlers directed fast, short pitched bowling at the Australian batsmen throughout the entire series, is seared into both countries’ sporting and social conscience. More recently, Indian batsman Nari Contractor was injured by a blow to the head and New Zealand tail-ender Ewen Chatfield nearly died after being felled by a bouncer from England paceman Peter Lever.

But that was 1975, before the introduction of helmets, and all the other modern protective paraphernalia for professional players. Nowadays, batsmen are so swaddled in armour, they often resemble medieval warriors rather than people who play a game associated with tea and cucumber sandwiches. But it has helped them avoid injury, or at least serious injury. As for death – well, the possibility was unthinkable.

Hughes’ passing has changed all that. His teammates, led by the dignified captain Michael Clarke, will face uncertain new terrain, both sporting and psychological, when they resume hostilities against India next week here in Adelaide.

Will they still have the same relish for playing the game quite so hard? Will the bouncer, an integral component of the fast bowler’s armoury, be socially acceptable as a justifiable tactic to scare an intransigent batsman? And what of “sledging”, the process of verbal intimidation used by fielders against the opposition?

What of tomorrow’s cricketers? Will nervous parents be dissuading their offspring from taking up the game? What will be the outcome of the inevitable web of litigation that seems to smother proceedings when somebody suffers an accident or injury in a public place? Nobody yet knows what the future holds.

On Wednesday, I was at the live telecast of Hughes’s funeral at the Adelaide Oval, one of perhaps some 5,000 people who soberly turned up to pay their respects. The queue for the condolence book, and the cricket bats placed in the windows of private homes and outside front gates the length and breadth of the country, were a moving testament to the affection in which this young man was held.

In all of this, there’s also poor Sean Abbott. He had the karmic misfortune to bowl the delivery that ended Hughes’s life. For him, advancing his own dream of playing cricket for Australia will be secondary to the far more difficult task of processing his guilt and bewilderment. He, too, is a casualty of the whole freakish episode.

Our own stage play finishes its run at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide this weekend. Set in a ramshackle country house, the myriad props and knick-knacks that adorn the stage set by way of decoration include a gnarled cricket bat, normally half-hidden in a hat stand by the front door. Last Wednesday night, for just that one night, the bat was discreetly repositioned in the centre of the room against the main table. It was a small enough tribute but heartfelt.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer usually based in London

Published: December 6, 2014 04:00 AM

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