Thursday 27 November 2014

What Phillip Hughes Meant To England Fans

It was 2009, and my girlfriend was getting annoyed. We were in a hotel room in the Gambia, and getting ready to go out to dinner. Or rather, she was. I was watching the television. A young batsman I'd never heard of was about to hit a ton against the best attack in world cricket. And he hadn't fought his way there: he'd blitzed them.

New Bradman, so they said. And it wasn't just the preposterous scores. It was the technique. Like Bradman, he did plenty of things he shouldn't have. Barely got into line, but it didn't matter. That just gave him room to laser the ball through the off side. He batted like a number 9 who was having fun: it looked like it could end any second, but that thin snick behind never came. The ball just kept disappearing to the fence.

So why didn't they bowl straight? Because it's easier said than done. Because he was just a kid having fun, and it couldn't last. We all know what Geoffrey says: "If the batsman cover drives you for a few fours then nicks off, you've won the battle." But the batsman didn't. He just kept dispatching ball after ball. And we sent the YouTube highlights video to each other, and said "Look at this kid!", because we're a family.

But then we had to play him, and we began to worry. If it hadn't been for the weight of those early runs, we would have realised what we were watching: not an ungodly talent sent to terrify us: just a very good young player who hadn't ever known the setbacks that inhibit the strokeplay of every batsman as they age.

Of course, our initial suspicions were right. It couldn't last. Nothing ever does, in cricket. So we gleefully watched as that uncultured technique was found out. Nothing huge changed: a slight shift in line, in length, so he couldn't play his favourite cut. Cricket is a game of inches, and our bowlers found the right ones. Hughes was dropped almost instantly: a couple of failures shouldn't have been enough to justify it, but everyone could see the jig was up.

For two years, little changed. He was in and out of the side, and we couldn't understand why they kept giving him another go. This was a player who had been found out. Damaged goods. Back to domestic cricket for you young man - go and learn your trade.

But then came 2013. You'll recall that Ashton Agar nearly made 100 batting at number 11. Agar was 19 years old, on debut, and like Hughes, about to accomplish something incredible. His youth, his charming smile, his nerves in front of the cameras - they all immediately endeared him to us. So we cheered him on, against our own team. It helped that we were winning, of course. But in no other game would the fans cheer on a member of the opposition like they did that day.

And at the other end? Phillip Hughes, now a number 6, calmly accumulated. The technique was still scratchy, but more refined. The flaky young genius was on his own journey - he was becoming a reliable professional. What did he say to Agar? A few years ago he'd been there himself. I'd like to think he just told him to enjoy himself.

We'd been wrong about him. He had class, and class isn't just about eye, or technique. No, turned out that flamboyant, borderline-genius tyro actually had that most unexpected and least valued of sporting attributes: character.

We cheered them on as they took 163 runs off our bowlers. Because we're a family.

Agar fell on 98, and we were distraught. Hughes finished unbeaten on 81, from 131 balls. A mature, responsible innings. He was on a journey, and now it won't ever be completed.

Something else happened in that series. Shane Watson had become a running joke because he kept getting out LBW for low scores. We do cruel running jokes better than any other sport, of course, because we're a family - sent each other pictures of photoshopped massive pads and the like.

Anyway, in the last test Watson finally came good. And during the highlights package someone asked Mark Nicholas what he thought this innings "meant". And Nicholas said the strangest thing. I don't know if these words are quite verbatim, but I do know they've stuck with me, for some reason:

"The truth about Shane Watson is...the truth is...he's a very nice young man, and all we wanted was to see him do well."

It was kind of a weird response. Because the question was clearly about what it meant for Australia's batting order. I found it such an interesting little moment: I don't really know where it came from, but it did feel more true than any other answer he could've given. We'd had our fun, we fans, for several months, and now Watson had somehow prevailed, and actually, we were fine with that, because we're a family. And today we're grieving as one.


  1. One of the things I kept thinking about yesterday was how Ashton Agar would feel.

    Of course, he probably felt much the same as everyone else, but I was thinking about the fact that his career hasn't kicked on since then, and the partnership with Hughes may remain the most significant thing he ever does in cricket (although he would obviously expect otherwise). It's certainly the most significant thing he's done up to now, and, whatever happens, it'll always be a special memory which will bind him to Hughes.

    Oh and he made 98, not 99.

  2. Enjoying reading these articles. Looking forward to your next.



  3. Phillip Hughes was a good cricketer. The most saddest thing is that he died on pitch :(