On 25 November 2014, a Sheffield Shield cricket match between New South Wales and South Australia was scheduled at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It was a perfect day for cricket, and the young man who strode to the pitch to open the batting for South Australia was the perfect man for the job. The position of opening bat is the pinnacle of achievement for a batsman, usually reached as the reward for a long haul through the batting ranks and anxious hours sweating on the team selection. But in this match, the opener to watch was Phillip Hughes, a 25-year-old larrikin who had graduated to opening batsman less than a week after his debut in first-class cricket.
South Australia won the toss and elected to bat, with Hughes and his partner, Mark Cosgrove, facing fast-medium bowler Sean Abbott and spinner Nathan Lyon. Cosgrove was out early, and Tom Cooper came in at number three. Hughes made his half-century before lunch. After the break, he returned to the crease to continue making runs, confidently hooking bouncers and sending drives to mid-off. He’d honed his batting skills over years of practice against his brother Jason, aiming for the chook pen, which was classed as mid-off and worth a four in backyard cricket.
Sean sent another bouncer towards Phillip. It was a short ball on middle stump, probably travelling at 120 kilometres an hour. As it bounced to shoulder height, Phillip swung to hook the ball and missed. He inexplicably leaned forward, put his hands on his knees, then fell face-down on the ground as if he’d been shot.
Emergency medics ran onto the ground. His mates gathered around him as he lay motionless. The crowd, unusually hushed, stood up on seats, trying to see what had happened to bring his innings to such an abrupt standstill. An ambulance arrived, stretchered the fallen batsman into the rear and drove, sirens wailing, to Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital.
The match was abandoned. Players from both sides slowly made their way to the dressing rooms, seeking privacy from the stunned fans. Sean Abbott, who’d bowled the ball that felled Hughes, had no idea what had happened. He felt ‘confused and upset’ as his teammates gathered around him.
Two other Shield games were being played that day, in Brisbane and Melbourne, and both were abandoned at the end of the day. A spokesman from Cricket Australia said, ‘Given how players across the country are feeling right now, it’s just not the day to be playing cricket.’
For Phillip Hughes, the game of cricket was over. In his final game, he was permanently 63 not out. How did this happen in the gentlemanly game of cricket, with its written and unwritten rules, its tradition of keeping calm and batting on? This was the game Phillip Hughes had spent his whole life practising for, refining his skills, fighting back from bad patches and finally achieving his dream to don the baggy green for Australia.
This is the Phillip Hughes story.
I’m not very knowledgeable about Test and Shield cricket, although I have more than a passing knowledge of the backyard variety, having been brought in to umpire a few times. Years ago, when my son Simon was nine, he’d often inveigle his younger-by-five-minutes twin, Adam, to face ball after ball as part of Simon’s Grand Plan to become the best bowler in Australia. Simon was convinced there was a baggy green with his name on it, just waiting for him to be good enough to claim it. As I watched him tirelessly throwing leg breaks, spins, googlies, bouncers, and yorkers, bowling around the wicket and over the wicket, using the laundry wall for one boundary, a chicken-wire fence for another and several apricot trees for the rest, I often wondered what it was about boys and cricket. There must have been boys in backyards all over the country doing this. Every now and then, Simon would roar ‘Out!’ as his delivery whacked into the old wooden apricot box that Adam was defending, sending fragments of long-dead apricots flying and lending a new meaning to the phrase ‘a sticky wicket’.
Simon’s dreams were brought to an end, not for lack of trying — I think the saying ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect’ was meant for him — but because he invested his delivery with such focus and energy that his developing spine began to display a serious curvature, which affected his walking, never mind his bowling. Off with the white flannels and into the white sheets, where he spent three months lying flat on his back with weights attached to both legs to stretch him straight again! He was advised to give cricket a miss thereafter. He later became a ‘petrol head’, where he could enjoy his sport of choice sitting down.
Not so for young Phillip Hughes, however.
The story of Phillip’s short but eventful life begins in Macksville, a small town on the Nambucca River in New South Wales, where the Pacific Highway does a sharp right towards Nambucca Heads. Phillip grew up in East Street, Macksville, surrounded by dozens of friends and several generations of family members. His doting grandparents lived just down the road in Taylors Arms, the site of the original ‘Pub with no Beer’. The pub might have become famous for running out of beer, but the welcome and the food never ran out in the home of Phillip’s Italian-born grandmother, Angela. Phillip was a big baby, weighing more than nine pounds (about four kilos) at birth, and his grandfather, Vince, tagged him ‘buffono’ or big. Thereafter, Phillip was nicknamed Boofa at home.
As well as being close to his brother Jason and little sister Megan, Phillip often played with his older cousin Sharnie, whose father, Geato Ramunno, was his mother’s brother. Sharnie was one of the few girls allowed to join in backyard sports with the close-knit pack of East Street boys.
The cousins and friends were always together after school. In the early days, Rugby was their game and Sharnie was the best of them, but by the time Phillip was about 12 he’d decided that there was a baggy green in his future. The lad was blessed with a charm that could sway other family members. Even his older brother Jason would usually give in to Phillip’s constant demands to bat first in the backyard games. If Jason’s resistance held when he won the toss fair and square, Phillip would enlist the aid of his mother, Virginia, to overrule the result. He was so lovable that people couldn’t stay cranky with him for long.
The Hughes backyard in East Street provided the training ground, not only for his left-handed hooks toward the chook pen, but also to perfect his famous cover drive. But in the Ramunno backyard he developed the cut shot that became his trademark.
In his official biography, published by Knox & Lalor, Sharnierecalled those games. ‘He would stand there the whole time. Cut shot, cut shot, cut shot, cut shot … until he got a hundred. And we were like, seriously, we can’t get this bugger out. We were glad when it was too dark to play sometimes as that was the only way to stop him.’
The rules were different at the Hughes house, where there was a score for every structure in the yard. Hitting a roaming chook was worth 25 runs, and at least one slow-footed bird paid with her life. At home, the cut was only worth two runs, so he worked hard at perfecting his drives towards the fence at mid-off, which would earn him four. Because there was outdoor lighting in the Hughes backyard, games often kept going until all the players had been summoned home for dinner.
When not physically practising, he’d come home from school and watch TV footage, time and again, of Justin Langer and Brian Lara, who were both experts at the cut shot. Watching them, he learned the secrets of staying calm and relaxed, focusing on the ball, nothing else, keeping his stance pretty square and then using the bat to hit the ball where it came in. He practised playing close to the body and hitting the ball to third man, or getting the bat over the top of balls that came wider out, giving the opportunity for a classic shot.
In high school, Phillip played junior cricket for the Macksville RSL Cricket Club, where he excelled so quickly that he was playing A-Grade at the age of 12, scoring his first century in representative cricket. When he was 15, he was selected for the NSW schoolboys’ team, which toured India. At the age of 17, he moved from Macksville to Sydney, where he attended Homebush Boys’ High and played for the Western Suburbs District Cricket Club in grade cricket, scoring 141 in his first match. Over the 2006–07 season, he scored a solid 752 runs at an average of 35.81, with a highest score of 142. In 2008, he represented Australia at the ICC Under-19 World Cup, and on the strength of his outstanding results, NSW Cricket offered him a rookie contract for the 2007–08 season. He joined the team at the age of 18 years and 355 days.
On 20 November 2007, Phillip stepped out on the SCG representing NSW for the first time. It was said that he was disappointed that he only made 51 runs, but NSW won the match by an innings, and Phillip was hooked on Sheffield Shield cricket. In March 2008, 19-year-old Phillip became the youngest player to reach a century in a Sheffield Shield final.
Phillip was building a stellar career. He did a spell of English county cricket for Middlesex, but he always had his eye on the big league. On his return, he told AAP reporters, ‘The big thing that came out of it was that I played at three Test grounds I’m going to be playing on and got to experience them before this big series coming up. Lord’s was my home ground there for Middlesex.’ Hughes’s spectacular rise invited comparisons with Sir Donald Bradman. When Phillip spoke to the AAP reporters, he’d scored an unparalleled 574 runs in just five first-class innings. Bradman, at the age of 21, hadscored 556 runs in as many innings in 1930.
‘The rise to the top level has been very fast for me,’ Hughes was reported as saying. ‘I’m 20 years of age and it’s all happened like a bang.’
And that was the trajectory he was on. Over the next few years, he transferred from NSW to South Australia, played in Tests and international one-day matches, and had another season in England, this time with Worcestershire. But there were weak spots interrupting his run of successes. In 2010–11, he was dropped from the Australian Test team because of his inconsistent batting, but he was reinstated after Ricky Ponting retired and made a dramatic comeback, scoring back-to-back centuries as number 3 batsman against Sri Lanka in Hobart. He had another rough patch during the 2013 Test series in India, but the selectors were still slating him for inclusion in Australia’s 2015 World Cup team. So all eyes were on his form in the Shield match on 25 November 2015, when he and Tom Cooper strode out to bat, with Hughes at number one, filling in for Michael Clarke, the injured captain.
When Phillip went down, Sean Abbott was the first to reach him, followed quickly by all the other players. Someone called for medical assistance, as Hughes appeared to be unconscious. No one was quite sure what was wrong. He was wearing a helmet and was used to dealing with bouncers, so what the hell had happened? The team doctor, John Orchard, tried to resuscitate Phillip, helped by Dr Tim Stanley, an intensive-care specialist who ran from the stands. They intubated Phillip and gave life support, doing what they could for what seemed like an endless 30 minutes while they waited grimly for the ambulance.
Phillip’s mother Virginia and sister Megan were in the stands, there to cheer him on as opening batsman. Horrified and frozen to immobility they watched as the field of cricketers closed in around him. Someone erected a sheet as a privacy barrier around him while he was being treated. An ambulance arrived with paramedics, then a medevac chopper flew in and landed on the ground. Whatever had happened, it was serious.
Over the next two days, it seemed the whole nation was waiting for news. The question asked in every encounter was ‘Have you heard anything about Phillip Hughes?’ People who barely follow cricket, like me, are mothers of sons like Phillip. Men who don’t play cricket are armchair umpires, and Phillip was a favourite. Women missed his larrikin good looks, and boys playing backyard cricket missed their hero. Everyone in Australia seemed to be waiting, hoping he’d come out of his coma with a cheeky grin and a twinkle in his eye.
But it was not to be. The doctors advised that he’d suffered a catastrophic brain injury, so his family made the hard decision to farewell their boy and let him go. The Australian team doctor, Peter Bruckner, delivered the bad news to the waiting nation.
He said, ‘It is my sad duty to inform you that a short time ago Phillip Hughes passed away. He never regained consciousness following his injury on Tuesday. He was not in pain before he passed and was surrounded by his family and close friends. As a cricket community, we mourn his loss and extend our deepest sympathies to Phillip’s family and friends at this incredibly sad time.’
He explained that the blow from the cricket ball had compressed a large artery in Phillip’s neck, splitting it and leading to a ‘massive bleed’ into the brain. Bruckner described it as a ‘freakish’ injury. He added, ‘Vertebral artery dissection is incredibly rare. If you look in the literature, there have been only 100 cases reported. There has been only one previous example caused by a cricket ball.’
Australian captain Michael Clarke made a superhuman effort to say a few words to the media on behalf of Phillip’s family and thank everyone for all they’d done for their son.
The reactions were heartfelt, national and international. In India and Britain, Phillip’s death was big news. Leading sports commentator Gerard Whateley summed up for Australia, saying, ‘Phillip’s death is a numbing shock, which is more akin to when terrorist attacks have occurred around the world.’
Former Australian batsman Michael Slater told the BBC the death ‘has left a country weeping and has changed cricket forever. The whole of Australia is mourning because he was a fighter. He got dropped by Australia but came back out and scored lots of runs. Australians can relate to that. His death has affected a nation.’ Flags were lowered to half-mast at the Sydney Cricket Ground and its sister ground in Melbourne.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott described Phillip Hughes as ‘a young man living out his dreams’. And a simple tribute came from the grass roots of the country — from the fans, the backyard cricketers, the boys with dreams of baggy green. It began on Twitter when a former cricketer, Paul Taylor from northern Sydney, posted a photo of his cricket bat and cap leaning on the wall outside his door under the hash tag ‘#putoutyourbats’. The idea travelled like wildfire around the country, extended on Facebook and other social media. It was picked up by the mainstream media, and thousands of cricket bats appeared overnight, leaning by front gates, against school fences, beside back doors and high-rise apartment doors. All over the country, the bats went out as a tribute to the boy from Macksville who had lived his dream.
A few days later, Australian captain Michael Clarke fronted the media for the second time since Hughes’s tragic death, this time to speak on behalf of the players and staff and deliver a personal message.
Clarke had arrived at the SCG before the media conference and headed straight out to the centre wicket to pay his respects and honour his mate. During the media conference, it became clear that Clarke wasn’t even thinking about when cricket might resume. Judging by his body language on that day, many observers thought it could be some time until players would be even remotely ready.
Clarke had rehearsed his speech in a whisper, and once again did the Hughes family and his team-mates proud.
‘Words cannot express what we all feel as a team right now,’ he read. ‘To Greg, Virginia, Jason and Megan, we share in the deep pain you’re feeling.’
Clarke remembered how Hughesy used to put things into perspective, saying ‘Where else would you rather be, boys, but playing cricket for your country?’ Clarke went on, ‘The world lost one of its great blokes this week, and we are all poorer for it. Our promise to Hughesy’s family is that we will do everything we can to honour his memory.’
At Clarke’s request, Cricket Australia had agreed to retire Hughes’s Australian one-day international shirt number, 64. Its absence would be a constant reminder. ‘His legacy of trying to improve each and every day will drive us for the rest of our lives,’ Clarke said. ‘We’d like to thank everyone both here and overseas for the touching tributes to Hughesy in recent days. Our dressing room will never be the same. We loved him and always will. Rest in peace, Brussy.’
Cricket Australia boss James Sutherland was caught short by the devastating loss. Plans for cricket matches all over the country were up in the air. He told a news conference in Sydney the day after Phillip’s death that a decision hadn’t been made on whether the first Test against India, which was scheduled for the following week, would go ahead.
‘Cricket will go on when we’re ready, but we’ve not broached that subject with the players yet,’ Sutherland said. ‘We will in time, but they’ve got other things on their mind. The word “tragedy” gets used too often in sport, but this freak accident is a real-life tragedy.’
After all the tributes, the mourning, the funeral, the memorial service and the black armbands worn as the cricket team walked out to play their first game at the same crease where their mate had fallen, there was the inquest. And it appeared that some people weren’t altogether sure that Phillip’s death was an accident after all.