Updated: Jul 19, 2020
I remember jumping on a trampoline in 1997, Dad came to me and delivered the news that Princess Diana had died, mum woke me up as a teen that my Grandpa had passed away, I clearly remember being at work when I got a text from my brother which read, 'Phil Hughes dead. Can’t believe it!'
Neither could I.
About a week earlier Phil had been struck by Sean Abbott and all of the sporting world knew he was in a bad way. Being a supreme talent, he had debuted for Australia as a 21-year old having played state cricket since he was 18. In just his 2nd Test Match he made twin tons, 115 & 160, to be player of the match and lead Australia to victory on foreign soil in South Africa. All those who followed cricket around the world now knew who Phil Hughes was and this is why his death struck a chord with so many people.
Phil Hughes' first test ton versus South Africa
Without disrespect to anyone else who has died tragically on the sporting field, this was not an obscure death where we found it hard to relate. It was not John Smith who died in a game of 3rd grade cricket in Lancashire or a poor Pakistani with a mouthful of a name who passed away. Had it been someone like that not too many Australians would have battered an eyelid about the death of a cricketer. This death was Phil Hughes – Australian batting prodigy, 25 years of age, 52 appearances for Australia across all three formats and over 9,000 first class runs – the youngest since Bradman to produce these sort of numbers. WOW! He was the next best to Bradman? Statistically the greatest sportsperson of all time across any sport, how good could Phil Hughes have been? Side tangent but I personally think Michael Jordan is the GOAT – he changed sport forever and made it entertainment. My point is, we all knew who Phil Hughes was. He was an international opening batsman, yes he’d been in and out of the side a couple of times but he had already carved Steyn, Ntini, Morkel and Kallis over in South Africa, one felt the best was yet to come from this unorthodox left-hander. Sadly, we never got to see it.
Now I’ve been watching test cricket for nearly 30 years, something I have bragged about (not on my dating profile when I was single though…) is the only person who would have watched more cricket than me from 1993-2013 was Richie Benaud. Seeing a bouncer hit someone in the head happened most days. The bowler would give the batsman a spray who would return serve by looking tough (JL licked some blood in the 2005 Ashes and acted like Hannibal and enjoyed it…). Other batsmen might take the lid off, have a quick check then keep going. A nasty blow and a trainer would run out and do a quick check. Rarely would the 12th man get involved and bring a replacement helmet and once in a blue moon there might be a retired hurt.
Makhaya Ntini didn't miss Justin Langer
Wearing a helmet (with a grill) was not mandatory as it was a modern invention of the late 1970s. Stuey Law, Jimmy Maher and Sherwin Campbell were just three international players I remember who donned the grill-less ‘jockey’ helmet look. While playing local cricket I’d say well over two thirds of my teammates have never worn a helmet. I myself as a steady opener would wear one until drinks and on the off occasion I hadn't snicked off or missed a straight one, would later switch to a cap as I feel set, Ricky Ponting style. My point is, helmets were not mandatory.
Often a tragic event like the death of Phil Hughes brings about some change and the death of Phil Hughes has been no different. Helmets now must be worn from international level down and the designs have changed as well to provide the batsman more protection. Gone too are the days of the big quickie trying to intimidate the batsman after they get hit with a short ball, the thinking has changed, the norm now is to check on the batsman and ensure they’re okay, I like that.
I was proud to be part of Barron Cricket Club, paying tribute to Phil Hughes in 2014
I doubt we got to see the best of Phil Hughes playing for Australia, names like Ponting, S Waugh, big Matty Hayden and Steve Smith all had ‘false dawns’ before hitting their prime at 28-32. The outpouring of emotion and support for Phil, his family and the Australian cricket team was overwhelming, none better than Kiwi skipper, Brendon McCullum. Hughes’ funeral in Marrickville was packed with the world’s best cricket identities, there was tremendous love for the young man and in the weeks, months and indeed years that have followed, we have some wonderful tributes from his teammates and former adversaries, all remembering and honouring the name of Phillip Hughes.
I was numb when I got that text from my brother, I couldn’t believe that one of our national cricketers had died playing the game that most of us grew up playing in our backyards. It didn't make sense, in fact, it still doesn’t. It has made the game of cricket safer and brought about significant change, but the cost was far too great.