A Loss Beyond All Comprehension, a Game in Despair
In his baggy green cap, the Australian cricketer bounces down the pavilion steps with an inbuilt spirit of adventure. It is no cliche to say he carries his nation's optimistic tendencies on to the field. That bounce will now become a sad and wary trudge.
For how long, no one can say, but it will be a miracle of counselling, of self-possession, if any of those players who saw Phillip Hughes, 25, struck down by a bouncer at the Sydney Cricket Ground ever feels quite the same about the game he loved. Not only the eye-witnesses to the accident, but all his friends and colleagues across the vast Australian territory, and everyone he has ever played with or against.
Plainly the grief that matters most is that of the Hughes family, who saw his life cast into a maelstrom on a cricket pitch, where, despite the risks posed by a hard object travelling at 90mph, death was never thought to be a serious possibility until the victim, who was attacking a head-high ball with a hook shot, fell forward on to his face and began his journey into darkness.
A loss that must be beyond comprehension to his real family will never make sense either to the people he batted with and against. From the moment of impact, images zipped around the world of fielders and officials gathered in panic around the fallen batsman. As they gesticulated to the balcony for help, their features radiated more than routine concern. You can see even more clearly now the suspicion in those faces that the world might be changing for ever.
It was, and it has, because cricket was not meant to have scope for such calamities. Despite the helmets, the concerns about close-in fielding positions and the often-murmured worries about Twenty20 spectators sitting under a hail of sixes, the sport never considered the possibility of a 25-year-old Test batsman who exemplified his country's assertive shot-making having his life ended by a small red ball.
Military personnel have to deal with this all the time. Friends die in front of them. But to join the Army is to step into harm's way, with all the perils obvious from the start. A Sheffield Shield match was never meant to be a killing ground. And a batting helmet was never meant to be susceptible to a delivery that landed below it, as the batsman swivelled, at the worst possible point of impact. Trajectory, speed and human physiology conspired to turn a bang, a thumping impact, into a life-ending collision.
In other sports, dire risk is a daily companion. Boxing is never far from the reality that organised violence exposes the protagonists not only to long-term damage but the chance that a single punch delivered to the wrong place at the wrong time can kill. In Formula One, miscalculation or misfortune can extinguish a life in seconds. Jockeys and equestrian riders know from hard experience that being fired into the ground
head first can cause fatal injuries to brain and spine, as can a pile of bodies in rugby.
Knowing these dangers prepares the sport, subconsciously, for terrible losses. Cricket, though, has tended to regard blows to the head and face as good macho jousting. Not because the sport lacks compassion. Far from it. The joshing was possible because death by bouncer remained unimaginable.
Thus the trickle of blood from Ricky Ponting's cheek at Lord's was a defining image of Ashes enmity: a source of excitement - rejoicing, even - for the crowd. Mike Gatting's panda face was a semi-comic diagram of how good quick bowling could rearrange even the most skilful batsman's features.
Hughes's death turns all of this upside down. When the news broke, cricket felt unrecognisable. The sorrow that flowed from fellow players expressed not just loss but shock and incomprehension. If cricket was unprepared for the funeral of a 25-year-old batsman who was on the verge of an international recall - and was hailed as a boy wonder on an Ashes tour of these shores - then the process of feeling 'normal' about cricket again will take years, not months, and may never reach its end.
Outside the Hughes family, Sean Abbott, the bowler, is foremost among the living whose lives will feel wrecked. If he can bring himself to play again, Abbott will one day have to fire a short ball down a pitch. The fielders who saw Hughes felled will have to watch at close quarters other batsmen being assailed. The hook shot will come to seem less of a buccaneering statement than a defence of life and limb.
Maybe the whole of cricket will eventually rationalise an event that looks, from this distance, to have been a cosmically malign accident. But no sentient person could demand or even expect that losing a friend and colleague in this way should be boxed away while the carnival resumes.
They will go on, somehow. Each will address their grief, and that grief will be shared by every cricket-playing nation, including England. For next summer's Ashes tour, ways will be found of honouring Hughes while trying to uphold the intense rivalry he saw for himself during a difficult graduation to Test cricket.
The 2015 series is a minor concern for Michael Clarke's team. Their mountain is the next 24 hours, and then the next, until the urge to play aggressive cricket returns by increments, and the memory of Hughes can somehow be laid down in a safe place, separate from the game itself, which has retired hurt, with a broken heart.