Likeable, hard working and possessing skills that had him tagged as another great batsman in the making, it was a matter of time before Phillip Hughes cemented his spot in the Australian Test team. Then, improbably and inconsolably, his time ran out.
These strong men of Australian cricket have often had very little in common. Their competitiveness, pride and differences of opinion have caused plenty of arguments and disagreements. Apart from the baggy green cap, there was often only one thing that they all agreed on:
He was a very close friend of Clarke, yet a pupil of Ponting, with whom he shared a manager in James Henderson. He was a friend and opening partner for each of Warner, Watson and Katich – three more contrasting characters it would be almost impossible to find. He was equally happy in the company of Haddin and Wade, two men of different states and generations but shared desire to keep wicket for their country. And he was a student of batting mentors as broadly churched as Lehmann, Langer and his personal coach Neil D’Costa.
For all their many divergent views, these men shared enormous belief in Hughes. A belief that he would soon bloom into one of Australia’s most prolific Test batsmen, fulfilling the promise he first demonstrated on a precocious tour to South Africa in 2009, having found a more sustainable style of batting. This belief is also why the grief about Hughes’ death at the age of 25 is so universal, and so shattering. Hughes always had time on his side, or so we thought.
Phillip Joel Hughes was born on November 30, 1988, the son of Greg and Virginia. They owned a banana farm in the northern New South Wales town of Macksville, and it was here that Hughes first learned the scything, cutting method that he would spring upon all manner of bowling attacks, from junior and country cricket to Sydney grade and the Sheffield Shield for NSW.
His batting and life coach around this time was D’Costa, who had also shepherded Clarke in his early days and in Hughes saw another great Australian batsman in the making. “This kid,” he was often heard to say, “will go all the way.”
If there was some initial skepticism from state selectors about Hughes’ tendency to open up his stumps while arrowing boundaries through the off side, it was quickly swept away by runs. Hundreds piled up against unsuspecting attacks, and a national selection panel led by Andrew Hilditch was swayed into taking Hughes to South Africa as the man to replace Matthew Hayden. It was a bold call, ahead of the likes of Chris Rogers and Phil Jaques, but the aggregates backed it up.
His first international innings was over in a few balls, his pet cut shot drawing an edge behind. But the South Africans took this as proof of fallibility outside off stump, and fed the shot as Hughes galloped to twin hundreds in Durban. They underpinned a series win that Ponting called his favourite, and seemed to set Hughes up for the future.
England and Andrew Flintoff had other ideas, tucking up the 20-year-old Hughes and swaying the Ashes tourists to drop him after two Tests. His place in the team was inconsistent from that moment, and his method gradually reshaped into something more rounded and grounded in the game’s fundamentals. A method that would take time to mature, but could last. It was still in transition when Hughes was caught Guptill, bowled Martin four innings out of four against New Zealand in 2011. He was dropped, but would come again.
The search for runs and a longer run in the Test team saw Hughes move to South Australia in 2012, where he found Adelaide to have more in common with Macksville than Sydney. His regular visits back to the family farm kept him uncomplicated and humble in his demeanour and words. No matter where he played, Hughes was never anything other than a wholehearted, determined and slightly cheeky country kid.
In late 2012, Hughes appeared finally to be taking a more permanent berth in the team. He batted at No. 3 against Sri Lanka, and also found his way into the ODI team, where he became the first Australian to make a hundred on debut. While Hughes found the going harder in India, struggling to find a way against the hosts’ spin bowlers and parched pitches, he improved gradually as the trip went on, earning plaudits from the chief executive James Sutherland for his perseverance on a tour better known for the Mohali suspensions.
His final Test appearances took place against England, where not for the first time he was dropped when at another time he might have enjoyed a longer stint in the team. An unbeaten 81 in the first Test at Trent Bridge hinted at the player Hughes was on the way to becoming. Far tighter than in South Africa, and composed enough to inspire the teenaged debutant Ashton Agar’s comet-like 98 from No. 11. Hughes had been around long enough to be the senior pro in this most memorable stand.
But Australia were rolling through options for the return Ashes series at home, and the coach Darren Lehmann’s preference for right-handers to combat Graeme Swann told against Hughes. He was now cast as the team’s reserve batsman, forever on the edge of the Test XI but never in it, and his humility in handling this commission spoke volumes.
On tour, Hughes was excellent company, whether in coffee shops during the day or bars after dark. His acceptance of the reserve role was impressive, in a game where so many players are in a hurry for their chance. Continued runs would eventually mount an argument too strong to ignore, so why worry about it?
“Just being in this squad is where I need to be,” Hughes said in South Africa earlier this year. “Playing or not playing, I’m happy to be in the squad and helping out the guys wherever needed. It doesn’t bother me about what happens here, I’m not looking too far ahead. Consistency is a big thing for me, having been in and out of the team. When I get another crack, I really want to try to be as consistent as I possibly can be.”
Hughes showed that sort of consistency in a top-end series for Australia A, twice coshing double-hundreds against South African opposition. He came exceptionally close to tilting Rogers out of the Test XI against Pakistan in the UAE, but was groomed for later assignments. Rogers might only be playing another year or so, Australia’s schedule wasn’t getting any less demanding, Hughes’ appetite for runs was undiminished. There was so much time.
At the SCG against New South Wales, Hughes played as though he could see a Test match in his very near future. This was not the 20-year-old bush basher who had so startled South Africa, but a more considered and mature young man. Many good judges had likened Hughes to Langer and Matthew Hayden, young men with less than perfect techniques who learned from harsh early Test lessons to return as wiser and ultimately dominant Test batsmen. Hughes was embodying this as he moved into the 60s.
Then Sean Abbott delivered a bouncer, no more venomous than any Hughes had faced over the years. He had already avoided a few short balls, but this time elected to hook, a stroke that he added more consistently to his shot locker as one of the means by which to open up more scoring avenues. Like he had done at all phases of his career, Hughes arrived early, swivelling to meet ball with bat, but miscalculating the pace ever so slightly. A one in a billion blow caused him to reel, to stagger, and then collapse. He made 63, not out.
Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting. David Warner and Shane Watson. Simon Katich and Justin Langer. Brad Haddin and Matthew Wade. Darren Lehmann and Brett Lee. All went to Hughes’ bedside at St Vincent’s Hospital, and all prayed for the miracle that did not arrive. They had all been united in their admiration for Hughes, and were all now together in grief, alongside the rest of the cricket world. Improbably, impossibly and inconsolably, time had run out.
(ESPNcricinfo, by Daniel Brettig)