The display of sadness following the young batsman’s tragic death shows us what cricket really means to its fans.
The outpouring of grief for Australian batsman Phillip Hughes, who died last Thursday two days after being struck by a ball during a match, was swift and untrammelled. Soon after it happened, a resident of Sydney left his bat outside his home and tweeted this:
And within hours #PutOutYourBats was trending around the world. From Australia…
…to India, to the UAE emirate of Sharjah, where Pakistan and New Zealand were playing a test match. (Pakistan’s national cricket team made the UAE its home following a brutal terrorist attack in 2009 in which a bus containing the Sri Lankan national side was attacked by extremist militants — six policemen and two civilians died.)
It was perhaps the first time a cricket-related trend dominated social media on a global scale. Non-cricket fans were surprised and moved by the global outpouring of grief, but for cricket fans it was also a moment for us to express a solidarity we’d never had the chance to before.
On Thursday I woke early, checked Twitter, and gasped out loud when I saw Hughes had died. The hashtag that accompanied the tweet I saw wasn’t #PutOutYourBats — it was another one that didn’t quite catch on in the same way, #CricketFamily.
Whenever a sport suffers a tragedy, the journalists who cover it often write certain truisms — they point out that sport is only a game, that things have been “put into perspective”; above all, that perhaps spectators and opponents should show a little more respect to each other. It’s clichÃ©d, this type of piece, and perhaps it’s clichÃ©d for a reason — there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with any of these points.
But such pieces have been thinner on the ground in the aftermath of Hughes’ death, because, as anyone who’s played the game for long enough knows, cricket fans aren’t really in need of these reminders. A few days ago I wrote a blog about what Hughes meant to England fans, and I realised that all of us — wherever we were — felt much the same. We’d lost one of our own.
You see, it really is a family. In England alone in the last few years I’ve played with and against Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Australians, New Zealanders, West Indians, South Africans, Afghans, Nigerians, Slovenians, and more. I now count many of them among my best friends. I’ve gone to Corfu and had my finger broken by a Pakistani bowler. I’ve had sixes hit off my bowling by an Italian-South African in the Channel Islands. I’ve gawped at games in Croatia, Sri Lanka, Barbados, and France. Much of this cricket has been social, and that means bonhomie is encouraged before, during, and after the game. But even in league cricket there’s generally a clear sense of mutual appreciation between the teams, at least once hostilities end.
What could be seen as cultural stereotyping is, for our family, a chance to bask in our love of each other’s strengths. We don’t just understand Indians are often adept at intelligent variations of flight and drift and wristy flicks to leg: We look forward to seeing them do it better than anyone else. We know the English will usually play straighter and try to swing the ball at a medium-fast pace, that West Indians will clatter the ball through the off side, that Pakistanis will sprint in from the boundary and try to sling down yorkers…
These differences are products of nature and nurture; certain pitches favour different styles of play, and all cricketers are influenced by their national heroes. Each nationality brings different nuances to their style of play, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold. Our differences bind us together, and we celebrate them in art and in unrestrained purple prose. That old joke about watching a sport that lasts five days and ends in a draw can be answered thus: When a pursuit marries body and intellect so comprehensively, is it really a sport any more?
And Hughes conformed to a stereotype: He embodied the toughness of Australian league cricket — a short guy from a banana plantation nearly 300 miles from Brisbane, he was reportedly facing short-pitched bowling from adults at the age of 12.
No doubt in another life the “bad habits” he’d taught himself would have been ironed out by his coaches pretty sharpish. They weren’t, and Hughes made them a virtue. Australian cricket isn’t without its technicians, but it seems there’s less of a tendency there to tinker with a young player’s method if it’s working than in, say, England.
The first time I saw him play I was on holiday. I annoyed my girlfriend because she wanted to go out to dinner, and something was holding me up.
The thing was, a guy I’d never heard of was on TV, smashing arguably the best attack in world cricket — South Africa — around the stadium. He did plenty wrong. Traditional coaching manuals tell you your body should be as close to the line of the ball as possible: It means you’ll have control over your shot and be less likely to edge the ball to the fielders behind you waiting to catch it.
But for Hughes simply stood and delivered, giving him a greater opportunity to throw the bat at the thing. The South Africans didn’t know what to do. They stuck to trusted angles of attack, and the ball disappeared to the boundary faster and faster.
It was a real concern for fans of English cricket: Was this guy about to beat us single-handedly? But those fears soon dissipated. When they played him our bowlers slightly shifted their line and length of delivery, depriving him of the room to attack. Hughes was swiftly dropped by Australia — not so much for the number of failures against us as the manner. We could all see the jig was up. He spent two years in and out of the side, and every time he came back he was found out in exactly the same way.
But then in England in 2013, he batted with a 19-year-old named Ashton Agar who was making his way towards a debut century of his own. The England fans found the charming, nervous Agar hugely endearing. We cheered the pair of them on towards Agar’s milestone. As the younger man fearlessly thrashed his way towards three figures, Hughes, at the other end, calmly accumulated. He was a different player, a man now. So when we talk about stereotypes, it turned out Hughes embodied the most Australian of all: toughness. Two years of failure, borderline humiliation at times, and still he prevailed.
To our dismay, Agar fell short: He was dismissed for 98. Like Hughes, his journey was never completed. Yesterday Cricket Australia officially recorded Hughes’ score last Tuesday as 63 not out — he had previously been listed as “retired hurt”. His captain, Michael Clarke, who gave him a tearful farewell at his bedside, tweeted a birthday salute yesterday on the stroke of midnight. Hughes would have been 26.
This isn’t a piece about a man I knew. Perhaps the closest I’ll get to that is through the emotional send-off by his captain, Michael Clarke, which appeared in the Herald Sun. He talked about Hughes’ ability to make people laugh:
I remember the last time we batted together: we would meet in the middle of the pitch and I would be asking him whether the ball was moving in the air or off the deck.
All he could do was talk about his cattle. What that man didn’t know about cows wasn’t worth knowing.
Five thousand people will attend Hughes’ funeral in the tiny town of Mackville on Australia’s east coast on Wednesday. But they will also grieve for him in Mumbai, in London, in Adelaide, in Colombo, in Islamabad, because they have all known a precocious young talent who didn’t stick to the coaching manual, who was on a journey as a player and as a man.
And they’ll know that whenever they travel to any of those other places they will find themselves a home, just as Phillip Hughes did every time he lashed the ball through the off side and thousands of fans put their hands together.