The Long Strange March For Phillip Hughes

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A couple of weeks ago a terrible tragedy occurred.

A 25 year old man from rural NSW died at his place of work after suffering a sudden injury in the course of his duties. His family and friends lost someone they loved very dearly. For them, the grief is unimaginable.

But  unlike the other 169 Australians who died at work this year, Phillip Hughes’s death while preparing for Test Cricket represented a lot more to the nation than even his own teammates realised.

Cricket enthusiasts were distressed, too by someone they knew by name and batting style. I am not one of those people, but I understand the attachment to people you’ve never met but relate to closely. I would hate for anything to happen to Taylor Swift right now.

I said that to demonstrate that you've heard of Taylor Swift. Why is there so much attention to someone who most people outside of cricket followers did not know?

The last week has been a fascinating insight into Australian values. The mainstream media devoted a large percentage of their reports on who was crying. Headlines were about who broke down while entering or exiting the hospital after the accident, who cried alone, and even how telling him the news made Steve Waugh’s son cry.

Was there ever a greater Australian father/son moment? Men were crying freely. All bets were off. Michael Clarke was a mess and that was ok. I hope the same understanding is applied to men everywhere when grief thunders in unexpectedly.

Most people I know had never heard the name Phillip Hughes before last week, which is why I feel sorry for the family that is genuinely suffering while the stars get the headlines for hurting.

Watching more closely I see a lot more than grief. I see fear. It’s all different now..

Every single  player who has ever picked up a bat from the backyard to the MCG knows, “That could have been me.” Every one who has bowled to get him out is thinking, “That could have been my ball.”

So much fear. This is not what cricket is about. Young, talented, committed cricketers are not supposed to die suddenly. Cricket, after all, is a sport where a man can engage in minimal risk and still get a ticket tape parade. He can be a hero for standing around for hours or days in the sun. It is got physically fit males, it is elite,  it is white (the non-white nations were brought cricket with colonisation) and the brotherhood is close. With all of that on your side, what could possibly go wrong?

In some ways, the death of Hughes has ushered fear into sport. No longer is it streakers, or match-fixing that were the worries of old, but of the very real vulnerability of each and every one of us. Even if you have everything in the world going for you, a bright future, and a big team of mates, life is cruel, sudden and seemingly random. There is no escaping its inexplicable and blatant unfairness.

Apart from some Buddhist lamas,  very few of us can get our heads around that. So this young man carries at his funeral and as his legacy the loss of the golden boy that Australia’s dreams are made of. No matter how much you achieve, or how much you think you can control, life can still sneak up behind you and change everything.

The sinking in of that knowledge is a very brutal blow to the Australian psyche. No one could have predicted what happened, and there must have been ten thousand close calls. Worse than this, could it happen again?

Well, yes it could and it did. An Israeli umpire who was a former cricketer died of roughly the same thing a week later, but Australians are not huge fans of Israelis, umpires or has-beens. So there’ll be no marching in the street for him.

He didn’t have all that potential, you see.. It is said that Hughes was good enough to play 100 test matches in his career. He’d already played 26.  Now, they will never know.

There is nothing more crushing to our ideals than the meaningless destruction of potential in youth.

Like a sporting James Dean, he will be heralded much higher than a legend, who holds fixed records. He will be a could-have would-have should-have been. Philip Hughes, the relative unknown will be remembered as an If-Only, almost a martyr, and that is a very privileged place to hold in history, one he probably would have found to be a burden in life.