Phillip Hughes: Forever Not Out

Posted on December 12, 2014

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By SB Tang

Note: Phillip Hughes’s manager, James Henderson, has, on behalf of Phillip’s family, read and approved this obituary. An edited version of this obituary appeared in New Statesman. 

Phillip Joel Hughes was born on 30 November 1988 in Macksville, a small Australian country town (population: 2786), 471 kilometres north of Sydney. He grew up on his family’s banana farm. His was a loving, tight-knit family: his dad, Gregory, his mum, Virginia, his big brother, Jason, and his little sister, Megan. Growing up, his best mate was his Dad. That would never change, even as Phillip grew up to earn national acclaim, fame and fortune by the time he was 20, an age when most Australians are just starting university or their first job.

The big-boned baby quickly grew to the physical size and shape typical of most great Australian batsmen — short, strong and mobile. Sir Donald Bradman stood 5 foot, 7 inches tall. Phillip eventually grew to almost the precise same height as the legend he would soon be compared with, falling an inch shy at 5 foot, 6 inches. Like so many Australians, Phillip first played cricket in the backyard with his brother. And, like so many great Australian batsmen before him, Phillip was largely self-taught with a heterodox batting technique shaped in and by his family’s backyard.

When the left-handed Phillip batted in his backyard, the family home and its glass windows stood to his on-side. Thus, ever the dutiful son, he developed a heterodox technique that created powerful shots through the off-side of his backyard where there was nothing but a brick fence that could (just) withstand the high-velocity force of the cricket balls that he whacked into it, but restricted the power of his shots through the on-side. The craters and dints that Phillip’s strokes made in that brick fence are still visible today.

Phillip was blessed with a preternatural gift — an eye like a hawk — and had the work ethic, hunger and determination to make the most of that gift. From the moment that he first picked up a cricket bat, Phillip scored runs. Mountains of them. His run-scoring feats resulted in invitations to the representative cricket carnivals where Australia’s best junior cricketers compete against one another. His family’s location in a remote country town meant that his Dad had to take five, six days off work in a row to drive him — often, up to five hours each way — to the carnivals. Phillip never once forgot to say thank you.

As a boy, Phillip had a dream — to play cricket for Australia. In order to fulfil that dream, Phillip moved to Sydney when he was just 16 to play for Western Suburbs District Cricket Club where he met and befriended his future Australian captain and teammate, Michael Clarke. He scored a match-winning hundred in his very first game for his new club.

By the age of 18, he’d debuted for New South Wales’s Sheffield Shield team. By the age of 19, he’d become the youngest ever batsman to score a hundred in a Shield final. In early 2009, at the age of 20, he broke into the Australian Test team and, in just his second Test, became the youngest ever batsman to score hundreds in both innings of a Test.

Phillip emerged at an awkward, transitional phase in Australian cricket history. Most members of arguably the finest team that Australia’s ever produced had just retired, and the national selectors were casting around uncertainly for replacements. Phillip’s next six years in Australian colours were topsy-turvy as the selectors, unnerved by his unorthodox technique, dropped him thrice from both the Test and one-day teams.

But he never dropped his bundle. In the face of professional adversity, he maintained his sunny disposition and the infectious, positive attitude that made him one of the most loved members of every dressing room that he entered. Each and every time he was dropped, he responded by simply working harder and scoring more runs to earn his spot back.

And he kept breaking records. At the age of 24, he became the first ever Australian to score a one-day international hundred on debut and set a world record last wicket Test partnership with Ashton Agar. Just four months ago, at the age of 25, he became the first Australian to score a one-day double-hundred. He dedicated the knock to his late Pop who’d passed away just a week earlier.

Like Sir Donald Bradman, Stan McCabe and Matt Hayden before him, Phillip appeared one day out of the obscurity of the Australian bush with an autodidactic batting technique, an iron-will, an indefatigable work ethic, a razor-sharp cricket brain and an insatiable appetite for runs. He was a very Australian Australian cricketer.

But as good a batsman as Phillip was, he was an even better bloke. He was a fundamentally decent, caring, selfless and empathetic human being. His teammates’ affection for him was such that they couldn’t stop bestowing him with nicknames — Hughesy, Hugh, Hugo, Hughie, Hugh-Dog, Hughbert, Bert, Bruzzy, Luigi, June, Pip and Pippa. I’ve probably missed a few, but it was hard to keep track, the man accrued new nicknames at the same rate that he scored first-class hundreds — Phillip had 26 of them, spread across four continents, before his 26th birthday. It is unlikely that Australia will ever again produce a batsman with a record that good at that tender age.

Off the field, Phillip was a relaxed, friendly, uncomplicated country lad with a cheeky grin on his face and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He always had time for people. If he bumped into someone he knew — even a journalist — he’d always stop to say hi and chat. He remembered everyone’s names, even people he’d only met on one previous occasion. He was just like any other 20-something Aussie bloke: always happy to have a chat over a coffee or a beer.

Everywhere he went, Phillip made friends easily with people of all backgrounds. It was his good mate from the New South Wales under-15 team, Shariful Islam, who recommended Phillip to Neil D’Costa, who became Phillip’s friend, manager and batting coach, and arranged for Phillip’s move to Sydney as a teenager. During county stints in England, Phillip forged firm friendships with the likes of: Nick Compton, the Harrow-educated grandson of Denis Compton; Moeen Ali, a young devout English Muslim of Pakistani descent; and Brett D’Oliveira, the English grandson of Basil D’Oliveira, a Cape Coloured cricketer who fled apartheid South Africa.

Phillip’s way of speaking was warm, affectionate and very Australian. Like many country boys, Phillip never stopped using “me” instead of “my” and the word “mate” peppered his speech. But he also loved more modern Australian vernacular — when speaking to his close mates, especially those on the field of play, he often used the words “braz” and “bruz”, as in: “We just love batting aye bruz!?”; “Bruz, we don’t play golf, we hit balls, other people get them, we don’t get our own balls!”; “We don’t study bruz, we make hundreds!”. Phillip’s cheeky, laconic maxims will live on in Australian cricket folklore. He was certainly true to them — in addition to scoring more hundreds than any other Australian batsman of his generation, he was, without doubt, one of the worst spellers that our country’s ever produced!

Above all, Phillip was a family man. He spent all of his scarce holiday time quietly back on the family farm. He invested the money from his professional cricket contracts in a cattle-farming business with his father. They christened their family business Four O Eight Angus — a reference to Phillip’s cherished baggy green cap number. Phillip helped design Four O Eight’s logo himself and had it stitched onto a baseball cap — he loved wearing baseball caps and was rarely seen without one from his massive collection — that one of his friends wore in a touching tribute to him following his death.

On the field, the bravest thing that I ever saw Phillip do was the way in which, after he was dropped from the Australian Test team in December 2011, he refined his natural, homespun batting technique. Phillip took less than 12 months to successfully make the necessary changes and win back his spot in the Test team. By opening up his batting stance, Phillip went from being unable to play the two most important on-side shots — the hook and the pull — with any power to being one of the best hookers and pullers in the country. Last summer, Phillip pulled Pat Cummins, the fastest young bowler in the world, for a flat six at the WACA on the fastest pitch in the world. Just four months ago, he brought up his record-making one-day double hundred with the same stroke.

A couple of weeks ago, Phillip was unwell in the lead-up to the Sheffield Shield match between New South Wales and South Australia at the SCG. But, as he always did, Phillip battled through. He knew that a vacant Test spot was on the line. All he needed to reclaim his spot in the Australian Test team was one big score in the Shield game.

A recall would have come at the perfect time — Phillip, at the age of 25, was batting better than ever, having scored three double-hundreds in the past 12 months. Indeed, his career was following much the same trajectory as the last two men to make their Test debuts for Australia at the age of 20: Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh. Modern Australian Test batsmen, especially those first picked at a very young age, generally peak between the ages of 27 and 32. Phillip was just coming into his prime. In the past year, during his latest period of ex-communication from the Test team, Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke had all publicly agreed on one thing: Phillip Hughes would go on to play 100 Tests and score 10,000 Test runs for his country.

Phillip’s team, South Australia, won the toss and chose to bat against a New South Wales team featuring six international bowlers. Phillip, in typical fashion, successfully gutsed out a difficult morning session on a slow, bowler-friendly wicket to reach 63 not out and steer his team to the strong position of 2/136 midway through the afternoon session.

The bowler, a fast-medium all-rounder, delivered an innocuous, run-of-the-mill bouncer. Phillip had it. He attacked the ball with a near-perfect hook shot — he swivelled on to his back foot and brought his bat down in a horizontal arc at lightning speed, turning his neck as he did so. He completed the stroke perfectly before the ball even reached him. Quite simply, Phillip was too good — he was early on his hook, whereas mere mortals are generally late on theirs.

The ball hit Phillip on the left-side of his neck. He stood with his hands on his knees for a second. Then he collapsed face-first. He was immediately surrounded and cared for by his brothers — Sean Abbott, David Warner, Tom Cooper, Mitch Starc, Nathan Lyon and Brad Haddin.

Phillip was tragically unlucky. When the ball struck his neck, it compressed his vertebral artery, one of the main arteries leading to the brain, causing the artery to split and massive bleeding to go up into his brain. It is a catastrophic and extremely rare injury — only 100 cases had ever been reported, only one in Australia caused by a cricket ball.

Phillip was taken to Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital. Approximately 100 cricketers went to visit him. A roster had to be set up so that every one of them could spend time with their little mate. Phillip had earned more than enough good karma in his life for a miracle. His family, his friends, and the nation prayed for it. But it never came. He passed away on 27 November 2014, three days before his 26th birthday.

The very last thing that Phillip did was what he did best — earning his Test spot back through sheer weight of runs. At the moment he fell, he was unbeaten on 63 and surrounded and supported by his friends and brothers-in-arms. The batsman who one of our great cricketing nation’s finest generations of fast bowlers found almost impossible to dislodge from the crease will forever be undefeated on 63. He will never grow old. He will never be dismissed. And he will never be forgotten.

I remember, when Phillip was surprisingly left out of Australia’s initial Test squad to tour South Africa earlier this year, I received a message from his close friend and former teammate, Daniel Smith: “He is gutted but will be back.” Nine days later, as he’d done on every previous occasion he’d been dropped, Phillip won back his place in the Australian squad.

But, now, Phillip will never be back. And we are all gutted.

He was a hero to the millions of us who had the privilege of watching him bat. He was a loyal and selfless friend, son, brother and teammate. He was, as we say in Australia, just a really good bloke. Thank you Phillip — you brought joy to every life you touched and whenever you walked out on to the field in a baggy green, you made me and millions of my countrymen feel proud and honoured to be Australian. Rest in peace Phillip Joel Hughes.

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