Australia Cherishes Spirit of Its Fallen Son

In Macksville, New South Wales, there is a debate over how to best commemorate the short life of their famous lost son Phillip Hughes.

Published: 04th January 2015 09:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th January 2015 09:20 AM   |  A+A-


MACKSVILLE: In Macksville, New South Wales, there is a debate over how to best commemorate the short life of their famous lost son Phillip Hughes.

Ideas range from the renaming of a local park or bridge after the 25-year-old who died on Nov 27, to building a giant cricket bat with the number 408 on it (Hughes's position on the list of Australian Test cricketers), but perhaps the most eccentric was outlined by the town's mayor, Rhonda Hoban, when she spoke to the local newspaper, the Nambucca Guardian. "I've even had someone suggest that in all directions from Macksville Post Office there be signs erected stating that Macksville is 63 kilometres or 63 miles away." It is an idea reflecting Hughes's score at the time he was struck. He will forever be 63 not out.

The media caravan which swept into Macksville, a town with a population of only 2,600, for the Hughes funeral has moved on to the next big story.

Cricket has restarted at club, state and Test level in Australia. The flashing bails, cheerleaders and rock-and-roll cricket that is the Big Bash is up and running and Australia's Test cricketers are locked in battle with India in a series which probably would have included Hughes had it not been for the one-in-a-million accident at the SCG, when he was hit by a bouncer while batting for his adopted state team, South Australia.

Cricket is not unused to tragedy. In England, Tom Maynard died at the age of 23 in 2012, Ben Hollioake died in a car crash in Australia 12 years ago, just a few days after being part of an England one-day squad in New Zealand, and West Indies batsman Runako Morton was killed driving home from a club match in March 2012.

But it was the manner of Hughes's death that stopped the sport in its tracks. "You lose mates, opponents through accidents or illness but never have we had to watch someone dying on the field," said former Australia Test captain Ian Chappell. "You know as a player that accidents can happen. You hope like hell they don't but you accept the risks. But you never expect there to be a death on the field."

Hughes's death touched fans worldwide and sparked a spontaneous tribute on social media started by a cricket fan in Sydney that went viral around the globe. Paul Taylor tweeted a picture of his cricket bat propped against a wall urging other fans to do the same in memory of Hughes under the hashtag 'putoutyourbats'. "We've all played cricket in one way or other. Backyard or beach cricket, no matter what level we've all grown up with a bat and ball. This is our way to connect and show our sadness," he said. Thousands of others, from club cricketers to Sachin Tendulkar tweeted pictures of their bats.

Google Australia had an image of a bat leaning against a wall on its home page, Reading's Australian goalkeeper, Adam Federici, put a bat beside his goal for a game against Norwich City and actor Hugh Jackman tweeted a picture of his bat on stage just before performing on Broadway. It was a fittingly unfussy tribute to a player who approached batting in its simplest form.

The day he was struck, Hughes was compiling an innings like a man who knew a Test place was within his grasp. He had earlier ducked under bouncers but decided to take on the hook shot when New South Wales bowler Sean Abbott dug the ball in short. Like many Australian batsmen, Hughes was a powerful hooker and puller and in some respects he executed the shot too well. He was through the stroke before the ball reached him and struck him just under his left ear.

Abbott was the first to reach him, Brad Haddin and Shane Watson moments later. The medics, including an intensive-care doctor who was in the crowd, resuscitated Hughes and he was taken to hospital for surgery. But word soon spread that the outlook was bleak and a stream of cricketers past and present travelled from across Australia to visit Hughes at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital.

"It was not a free for all. It was people who knew him well," said Ed Cowan, who played with Hughes for New South Wales and against England in the 2013 Ashes series. "When word filtered out that things were not going to go as expected, everyone who wanted to say goodbye made a bit of a dash for the hospital. It will have to rank as the worst day of my life and that is not exaggerating the situation."

Hughes never regained consciousness and his death was announced by Cricket Australia in the early hours of Thursday Nov 27, UK time. Hughes had died from a vertebral artery dissection which led to a bleed on the brain. Australia team doctor Peter Bruckner said he could find only 100 previous similar cases and only one "as the result of a cricket ball".

Cricket now faces a debate about its own safety and helmets will surely be improved to prevent further tragedies.

Tributes were led by Tony Abbott, the Australia prime minister, but the most moving was from Michael Clarke, one of the first to reach Hughes's bedside. The two were very close friends and Clarke responded with statesmanlike stature, first reading a prepared statement on behalf of the team at a press conference announcing Hughes's death, then delivering a moving eulogy at his funeral the following week. Clarke ended with words that will live through future generations of Australian cricket. "Phillip's spirit, which is now part of our game for ever, will act as a custodian of the sport we all love. We must listen to it. We must cherish it. We must learn from it. We must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on. So rest in peace my little brother. I'll see you out in the middle."

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Hughes is that in spite of fears that Australian cricket would never be the same again, that bowlers would be too scared to bowl bouncers or that aggression would be lost from the game, the sport is still being played the way the boy from Macksville would have wanted.

"I was hit on the head and balls were flying around. There was no holding back in the Shield games," said Cowan, who played for Tasmania against South Australia in their first Sheffield Shield match after Hughes's death. "It was a hard game to play in. I think it was not necessarily the fear of people being hit. It was the solitude of batting or standing in the outfield and having that time to yourself that was hard because it was all so fresh. The fact we were playing was not a quick fix to what happened but it took the angst out of batting. A mate had been lost. It is a cliche to say it gave us perspective but it certainly felt like that."

Abbott's name will be indelibly linked with Hughes but this is a young man on the verge of the Australian side and with a career to forge. Put simply, he has a life to lead. It is understood he accepts it was a freak accident that could have happened to anyone, which psychologists have said will help the recovery process. He showed encouraging signs of coping with the situation by bowling a bouncer in the first over of his return for New South Wales and took eight wickets in the match.

This is a huge summer for Australian cricket. The Test series against India leads into the World Cup, which is being held in Australia for the first time since 1992. The Big Bash Twenty20 competition attracts huge crowds and supporters will see cricketers belting balls for six as they play the game's most enjoyable format but they should not be fooled by appearances.

"People think because you are playing cricket again that the pain has stopped," Cowan said. "That is not the case. The healing has started but at the same time there are still some highly emotional, highly strung cricketers running around.

"How long will it take? I don't know. Hopefully, as Michael said at the funeral, his spirit will endure in the game forever."


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