Everything just feels so very peculiar now, since the news of Phillip Hughes tore at Australia on Thursday. Only the day prior, with Hughes in an induced coma, the Fairfax papers published an embedded video as part of their coverage captioned ‘Cricket injuries over the decades’. The play button was superimposed over a screenshot from the video: an image that now seems like an antiquated cliché of times past, with a helmet-less batsman doubled over in pain as the menacing, long-haired bowler strides down the side of the pitch in continued intimidation.
Only a few weeks ago, readers of The Guardian were reading about and watching YouTube highlights from six great fast bowling spells. In the space of the past 24 hours, phrases within the piece such as referring to Curtly Ambrose as the greatest “harbinger of Australian doom” have suddenly become groups of words that the writer wouldn’t even consider using.
During the afternoon’s coverage of Hughes’ death, the ABC’s Tony Eastley commented that one thing that makes the story so horrendous is that it happened to a man playing cricket. He wasn’t playing a sport in which a certain level of acceptance of a potentially fatal risk is required – this wasn’t boxing or motor racing. For we’ve all done it, he said. We’ve all stood at the end of a pitch and faced up.
The point was well made, and couldn’t have been expressed by a better person. Viewers could only look at this wise, inquisitive, grey-haired ABC bloke who they’d never before considered in an athletic sense and suddenly think, “Of course you’ve played – you’re an Aussie like the rest of us.”
And it’s not just that we’ve all been that kid with the bat standing down the end of the pitch in a game or in the nets, not yet worrying about scoring runs as we were instead nervously trying to learn how to protect our body from a potential ball pitched a little shorter than the last. But it’s also that we reminisce about summers of yore, and how we have loved watching the fastest, most dangerous, most intimidating spells of pace bowling the professionals have put on display for us.
But today, before we start talking about Lillee and Thompson; Akram and Younis; Roberts, Marshall, Ambrose, or any of the other West Indians, we’ll surely take pause. It’ll be a while before we go all “oooh” and “ahhh” as a batsman evades a bouncer aimed at his head, all “ooof” and “geez” when one connects with some part of the upper body.
Will Channel Nine’s producers be a little more selective with the classic matches they choose to show to fill in an afternoon’s broadcast when a test is delayed by rain this summer? Will they decide that showing that incredible innings from Langer and Gilchrist against Pakistan in Hobart from 1999 is probably not the best move, as the iconic moment that we Aussies have always loved is Shoaib Akhtar storming in and delivering a ball – we’ve previously described it as a ‘bullet’, I’m sure – that connects with Langer’s helmet? The dogged little fella hops straight up, a grin from ear-to-ear, and continues on to help deliver a famous test victory as a member of one of the greatest partnerships of our time.
For what we’ve always prized and loved about the sport feels strangely unnatural today. Until this week, most Australians have always taken pride in seeing cricket as a much tougher, more masculine pursuit than baseball. In the American game, a pitcher can’t legally throw the ball at the batter. In Australia, as it was once so delicately put, a batsman has to worry about protecting their head and their balls before thinking about anything else.
Never before has it felt like a professional sporting moment will have such an immediate impact on the psyche of every amateur playing the sport. There isn’t a batsman around the country who won’t think about Hughes when they next face up to a paceman. There isn’t a bowler who won’t think about Hughes when they next think that they’d usually deliver a bouncer at this stage of an over. There isn’t a parent or partner who won’t think about Hughes when their loved-one next strides to the pitch or fends off the first short-pitched delivery they face.
Meanwhile, as Phil Hughes continues to trend on Twitter in Australia and India, having been #1 worldwide in the hours after his death, the name Sean Abbott has trended too. The kid, born in 1992, now has a new paragraph on his Wikipedia page. It includes a line that states “many of the condolence messages [for Hughes] include support for Abbott.” As they should. One is reminded of John Malangone, and can but wonder how a person might respond to such an accident playing out in such a public forum.
Today, everything feels so very peculiar. One wonders when, exactly, it will all feel so natural – so Australian – once again.