We never thought of cricket as a deadly game. At times aggressive may be, particularly the way the Australians play the game. But deadly? No. At least, not until the tragic accident that claimed the life of 25 year-old Australian batsman, Phillip Hughes, when a bouncer struck him on the neck during a Sheffield Shield match at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 25 November 2014. He died in hospital two days later, surrounded by family and friends. The death of this vibrant and talented young man touched the hearts of cricket fans across the world. The outpouring of grief and the show of international solidarity with his family, friends, and team members, was truly heartwarming and unprecedented for a sportsman. So was the sympathy and concern for 22 year-old Sean Abbott, who bowled the fatal ball.
Cricket fans across the world seemed to feel that they knew Phil. His sporting talent, cheery personality and persistence to regain form and his place in the Test team, made him a popular figure in the cricket world. People knew Phil’s face, his cricket stats, and how hard he was working to get back into the Australian test team after some shaky form. That he never forgot his family and where he came from – the sleepy country town of Macksville on the northern New South Wales coast – endeared him to his fellow Australians, and reminded us that there is no place like home amongst the family who have always loved us through good times and bad. To Australians, he just seemed like the quintessential ‘good Aussie bloke’.
‘Putout your bats’, a simple tribute started by Sydney man Paul Taylor, who posted a photo on Twitter of his cricket bat and cap which he’d placed outside the front door of his home as a mark of respect to Hughes, quickly went viral on Twitter and was picked up and re-tweeted by cricket fans around Australia and overseas. Within hours, bats were appearing outside doors and fences of homes, offices, sports grounds, and sometimes in the oddest and most remote places. Facebook too was inundated with postings with tributes, condolences and photos of cricket bats outside doors. At the opening session of the Pakistan vs. New Zealand cricket test in Sharjah, both teams lined up bats and caps along the fence in a touching tribute to honour Phil. The ‘putout our bats’ phenomena truly reflected the power of social media and how it can be used for bringing people together in a positive way.
Sports clubs – not just cricket – marked his passing in some way. Many players wore black armbands, or the number 408 – Hughes’s test player number – or 63, Phil Hughes’s score when he was struck. Scoreboards at sports stadia flashed his photo and tributes and, at the start of the first test against India at Adelaide Oval, instead of a minute’s silence, the crowd stood for 63 seconds of applause. English rock star and cricket fan, Elton John, dedicated a song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at a concert in Germany to an audience that probably didn’t quite get it about cricket but a global audience of cricket fans will now always be reminded of Phil Hughes when they hear this song. Phil Hughes’s death, too young in life, was a brief uniting moment across so many countries, a time of a mutual sense of loss. It reminds me that sport is a great unifier of people from all walks of life and across nations.
So why did the death of this young man touch so many of us when the world around us is full of tragedy every day. We don’t mark the loss of the countless numbers of undoubtedly good people who die tragically, with such emotional outpourings or with funerals attended by the Prime Minister and other political leaders. So, why did we feel this way about Phil?
In Australia, like Pakistan, cricket is a national sport. All across both countries, the sight of children playing cricket in any available space is such a common one. In Australia, we played it almost from the time we could walk. We played in the backyard, the street, the park or at the beach. I remember fondly the carefree fun of childhood growing up in my hometown on the coast of tropical North Queensland and playing cricket with my brother, cousins and our friends. The beach was definitely the favourite place for us all – we could run around barefooted, with lots of space and less likelihood of hitting a ball through someone’s window, a ‘crime’ which would always result in a loss of pocket money from our parents. We learned a lot in those young days – though we didn’t know it then – about playing as a team building, coordination, character-building and leadership, all attributes that sport can teach us and are useful for later life. These happy memories of childhood cricket are typical of so many Australians and contributed strongly to our lasting love of cricket. I know this is a bond we share with Pakistanis.
Australians living here in Pakistan were deeply touched by the number of Pakistanis who so kindly offered their condolences. Some of us pondered on how in this country where we have lost thousands of soldiers and civilians to terrorist attacks, other than their family and friends, there is rarely anything more than a passing mention in the media and people don’t seem to give it a second thought. An exception to this was the attack on the Peshawar Army Public School on December 16, 2014, a black day for the country and one of the few incidences that truly shocked the population into openly mourning. How could it not?
Does this mean we are oblivious to the suffering of others here? I don’t think so. I believe it is more likely that the scale and true horror of tragedies in Pakistan is so great and so frequent that we are too often in a state of denial and fear, trying to shut from our minds that it could happen to us. Without seeing the faces of the victims or a 'backstory' about their lives, people don’t seem to be able to so openly empathise. But that doesn't mean there is a lack of caring – people are still saddened and traumatised at such suffering, but process their feelings more inwardly. Perhaps Phil’s incident was the ‘one-in-a-million nature of the incident’ that shook us – a reminder that our lives can change in a flash while doing something that is so ‘normal’. In a media press conference, Australian team doctor Peter Brukner said, "I think in this instance, this was a freakish accident because it was an injury to the neck that caused haemorrhage in the brain." He went on to explain, "The condition is incredibly rare. It's called vertebral artery dissection leading to subarachnoid haemorrhage, and only 100 cases have ever been reported. There has been only one case reported as a result of a cricket ball.” Dr. Tony Grabs, the head of trauma surgery at St Vincent’s Hospital, where Hughes was treated, described the injury as “catastrophic.” "We haven't seen this at this hospital, this type of injury, so it is very rare and very freakish."
The incident sparked a debate about whether a different type of helmet might have prevented this tragedy. Maybe! But a helmet that covers the neck more fully would restrict movement and would most likely not be practical. However, designers are always working on new designs for sports equipment so perhaps some new groundbreaking design will appear on the market in the future. Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke, a close friend and mentor to Phil Hughes whom he called his ‘little brother’, was almost inconsolable in his grief in those early days. Clarke stayed by Hughes’s hospital bed in those last hours, comforting the family and saying his goodbyes. His public statement was hard to watch as he fought back the tears and struggled for composure. Who said men don’t cry? It is surely one of the most human emotions. We saw many of team members also breaking down and trying to console each other.
Many people were deeply concerned about the impact of this tragic incident on the life and career of Sean Abbott. Friends and team mates, and the public too, rallied around to support him. In a truly touching display of compassion, Megan Hughes, Phil's sister, sat with Abbott at the hospital and comforted and counselled him, assuring him that nobody thought it was his fault and that the family supported him and wished him well. Sean Abbott has shown courage in the face of his grief and anguish, attending Phil Hughes’s funeral alongside his team mates, the family, and friends. There were those in the cricket world who thought Abbott might never play again but he returned to the field sooner than expected. He has not spoken publicly about his feelings and we can only hope he is able to come to terms with this and know that it was not his fault.
The one person who may have truly understood what Sean Abbott has been going through, was John Anderson, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. When Anderson was a schoolboy, he was home from boarding school for the holidays and enjoying a game of backyard cricket with his father, when tragedy struck. A ball he hit struck his little sister Jane on the back of her neck as she sat playing with her pet cat. Sadly, Jane died as a result of this tragic accident. Their father, overcome with grief, sent John back to boarding school before the funeral and never spoke of what happened again. The psychological impact on this young boy must have been devastating.
John Anderson has rarely spoken of this sad time in his life though he referred to the incident in Faith and Duty, his authorised biography, saying that it drew him closer to his faith. Anderson overcame the trauma of that awful day, studied and worked hard, and went on to become the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, respected as an honourable and decent man. In a touching example of human kindness, he reached out to the devastated Abbott, offering to help him come to terms with what happened.
Gradually, life in the cricket world has returned to normal. The postponed First Test of the Australia vs. India series, previously scheduled for the Sydney Cricket Ground, was held in Adelaide. It opened with tributes for Phil Hughes, 63 seconds of applause, and David Warner was the first player to reach the now almost legendary number of 63 before going on to score centuries in both innings. He raised his bat to the sky for his mate Phil. And on 9 December, despite fears that he would have trouble returning to cricket or fast bowling, Sean Abbott bowled his first bouncer at a Sheffield Shield match for New South Wales against Queensland, ending the match with a career best of 6-14. He received a standing ovation from the crowd as he left the field, applauding his courage in facing up to his trauma. Cricket was back to normal and everyone was able to move on a little. For his family though, life will never be normal again.
In his beautiful and moving eulogy at Phil Hughes’s funeral, an event attended by several thousand locals and dignitaries including the Prime Minister, Michael Clarke said, “He always wanted to bring people together and he always wanted to celebrate his love for the game and its people. Is this what we call the spirit of cricket? From the little girl in Karachi holding a candlelight tribute to masters of the game like Tendulkar, Warne and Lara showing their grief to the world, the spirit that binds us all together. We feel it in the thrill of a cover drive. Or the taking of a screamer at gully, whether by a 12-year-old boy in Worcester or by Brendon McCullum in Dubai. It is in the brilliant hundred and five-wicket haul, just as significant to the players in a Western Suburbs club game as it is in a Test match."
Fighting back his tears, Clarke went on to say, "The bonds that lead to cricketers from around the world putting their bats out, that saw people who didn’t even know Phillip lay flowers at the gates of Lord’s and that brought every cricketing nation on earth to make its own heartfelt tribute. The bonds that saw players, old and new, rush to his bedside. From wherever they heard the news to say their prayers and farewells. This is what makes our game the greatest game in the world. Phillip’s spirit, which is now part of our game forever, 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.”
Although they will diminish in time, for now the tributes and sentimental moments continue to flow. Pakistan and New Zealand, with the support of the series sponsors, Haier, dedicated the trophy for their T20 matches, in memory of Phillip Hughes. In comments to AFP, Pakistan's T20 captain Shahid Afridi said, “Hughes died very young and his tragic death has left everyone shocked. We are thankful to the sponsors who have decided to dedicate the trophy in memory of Hughes as a mark of respect.”
The trophy was presented to the Australian High Commissioner, Peter Heyward, in Islamabad on 10 January. Mr Heyward tweeted, “Great gesture to dedicate Haier Pakistan NZ test cup in memory of Philip Hughes, presented by Shahid & Javed Afridi.” A memorial plaque to Phil Hughes has been unveiled at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the scene of the incident. The first day of Fourth Test against India, played at the SCG, was an emotional occasion and when David Warner again hit the magic 63 runs, in another tearful salute to his friend Hughes, he fell to the ground and kissed the pitch, before going on to reach yet another century. Although there were concerns that the Australian Test Team might not play well in the Australia vs India series due to the emotional upheaval, they played their hearts out, beating India in the first and second matches, drew the third and fourth, to take the series 2-0. What better way to honour their fallen friend?
Everything we do in life has its risk. In the end, it is not up to us when it is our time to go. Even the safest of pastimes can present an unforeseeable hazard that can result in tragedy and our life can change forever. Phillip Hughes died, doing what he loved – playing cricket. He lived his short life to the fullest, loved his family and friends, and made a lasting impact on the lives of sports fans around the world. He will be remembered as a great cricketer, who played his sport with passion and commitment, a very good human being who loved his family and friends, and as an inspiration to children who love sport. It is a fine legacy. So, rest in peace Phil. You will forever be ‘63 Not Out’ to cricket fans across the world.
The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA. [email protected]
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