Cricket’s saddest day

“What is human life but a game of cricket?”
The 3rd Duke of Dorset

I am constantly seduced by the ever changing dynamics of sport, it offers fans the best of times and the worst of times – on the whole leaving us with broad grins or the anguish of losing.

But this week has been different. Never before have I had such a numb lump in my throat. Sportsmen offer themselves to the stage like modern day gladiators – generously dedicating their lives for our enjoyment. But, particularly in a modern era where safety matters so much, we don’t expect it to be literally, a matter of life or death.

This complacency was agonisingly shattered on the 27th of Novemeber, when the Australian Phillip Hughes lost life playing the summer game. A medium fast paced bouncer to the back of his neck immediately changed cricket’s landscape forever.

Perhaps it is because I play cricket and adore to watch it that Hughes’s death resonated so strongly – even us social players are ruffled by bowlers and are for a fleeting moment trapped in a vulnerable base fear.

I was present at Phillip Hughes’s last test match. There is no distinct memory of him that day. His test record was excellent, though not exceptional – he had a brilliant start to his career as a batsman, not only scoring runs but doing so rapidly, but this was followed by many ups and downs.

Even so, there was real ability there and 26 years was never long enough for us to see his unconventional talent bloom. As it is, he is gone from our eyes, leaving us with our memories of a man who loved the game and had no “side” and our dreams of what he might have become.

Hughes is now set in the chrysalis of youth. Grouped with sportsmen that died before we saw them age – Senna, Mark Vivian Foe, Duncan Edwards, Ben Hollioake to name a modern few. Their premature deaths led to a beatification of their skills – a mausoleum for the untold futures or failings of their extinguished flames of life. And Hughes’s death is all the more poignant as he not only died young but because, like Senna, he was actually playing the sport he loved when he died.

Ultimately sport is an escape from the drudgery of real life and a tonic for the soul; however when it is faced with situations of gravity it always responds in the right way. The cricketing fraternity has been exquisite in their shared lament.

The Australian journalist Gregg Baum has written a series of exceptional articles on Hughes’s death – he beautifully summed the impossible horror as “an Achillean tragedy”. Unlike Ayrton Senna’s death there was no dodgy equipment to blame except cricket’s impartial Zeus. Perhaps this why there has been such a pure and unequivocally raw emotion filling the media – with a death devoid of blame, the mourners are left to weep and remember.

Any death of a public figure is a peculiar situation, due to the immense intimacy of mortality and the widespread outpouring of grief – a fascination of feeling pain but not genuine agony. I have joined many by laying out a bat, not only in deference to a stricken man but also in respect to the wonderful game of cricket.

The selfish thoughts rely on personal pity and memory of silly incidents on the field – daft caught and bowled attempts, awful batting against fast short bowling, and fielding far too close to the bat in dimming light. All par for the course for a man of the summer game.

One rather foolish and lucky memory is when I was fielding at square leg – deep in discourse with the rustic in the white coat about the merits of Battenberg cake and Robin Smith’s cut shot – when suddenly from nowhere a dark red orb flew between the umpire and I. It was past us before our heads rose to see the danger.

An inch either side and one of us would have been in a serious pickle. Lucky we are men who now wholeheartedly respect the danger of that rock hard ball.

Once the initial shock of Hughes’s death abated I drank a large whisky and read Francis Thompson’s ethereal poem ‘At Lord’s’; a meditation on the love of cricket. I stopped and shuddered whilst reading the melancholically apt lines;

“For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:”

P.J.Hughes – 63 NOT OUT FOREVER

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