As the Willow Gently Weeps: Why did Phillip Hughes’s death affect us so much?

Phillip Hughes remembrance poster

The last time I consistently watched Test cricket, or any cricket, as a very interested fan was several hundred years ago, when names like Rodney Marsh, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Bill Lawrie, Richie Benaud, the Chappell brothers, and Keith Stackpole were bending and spinning, bouncing and gardening, pulling and snicking and lofting.

They didn’t get paid much in those days by comparison with now. They were more your semi-professionals in that sense. The big business, the advertising and sponsorship, and the celebrity status of today’s cricket culture and its stars, the slickness, the 20-20 games, the megabucks, were far, far away. And the colour, too – my child’s eye memory is of watching the after-school Tea to Stumps sessions on our black and white TV, trying to discern the ball from the pitch, from the grass and from the sight screen, all of them in greyscale, including Ray Illingworth’s rolling off-breaks and Geoffrey Boycott’s opening fifties chalked up in single runs over two days of world-class boring for England. As the old set’s picture tube faded, so did my interest.

So this week, on November 25, when former and potentially future Australian Test cricketer, Phillip Hughes, fell after being hit by a bouncer from Sean Abbott during a Sheffield Shield match at the SCG, I didn’t take a lot of notice other than to feel sorry for the poor chap and his loved ones. And for the other poor chap whose bouncing ball had hit him. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the name Hughes, vaguely, but not the exact connection when I first read the report on the news ribbon at the bottom of the TV screen. It said something like ‘Phil Hughes hospitalised after accident’ and it ran with the sports stories. Not Kim Hughes, or Merv Hughes, no, Phil Hughes.

But then the media coverage grew and grew and by the time the announcement of Phillip’s death was made on Thursday afternoon, November 27, we all knew who he was, and our collective grief was driving us towards creating a symbol for national mourning.

To be truthful, it had become annoying, this coverage. Some of it seemed almost gleeful in its excitement at having a front-page story that would run and run and run into many other pages and days.

But the death? No, the death wasn’t annoying. The death was utterly shocking and terrible, a revelation that stops you in your tracks and plonks you, stunned, right into the moment. You become perfectly mindful, you remember later where you were and what you were doing, who you were with, and how you felt. It was a powerful memento mori.

Before that awful moment, though, the story led most news bulletins, it was all over the TV, radio and social media channels. You couldn’t turn any electronic gadget on, or read a paper without seeing or hearing updates about Phillip’s condition and the hopes and fears everyone held for his health and recovery.

What was the big deal with what was, initially, an injury to an athlete on a playing field? Yes, we’re a cricket and sports addicted country. We can’t seem to get past the need to deify our sportsmen, and perhaps a very few of our women. But, the big deal? Injuries happen all the time, don’t they, and cricketers face their fair share.

One reason is the visual nature of our culture and the old, horrible media dictum, if it bleeds, it leads. There are cameras on everything, and especially on events, sporting events like the Sheffield Shield. So much so that the footage played on the news of team-mates and others coming to Phillip’s aid as he lay on the pitch, also showed empty stands everywhere. People watch on TV or cable or online, at a distance. We’re all voyeurs. And leagues like the Sheffield Shield these days are, it seems, for the selectors and hardened fans to physically attend. The rest of us, not so much.

We can’t seem to grow up, either, another reason why we mill around sportsmen and their achievements. But that isn’t why there’s been such an apparently universal outpouring of grief by the population, at least judging by the media reportage. People, adults and children, placed cricket bats, along with bouquets and notes and gifts, outside cricket grounds, businesses, and their homes as marks of respect. Google included a tiny cricket bat beneath its search box on its Australian home page. Flags flew at half-mast. Junior cricketers were able to score up to 63 runs instead of 50 during the weekend’s matches before their mandatory retirement because Phillip Hughes was 63 not out when he fell. Cricket pitch curators mowed his Test cap number, 408, into their grassy fields. His death was mentioned in Federal Parliament; political leaders paid tribute, as did any number of A-listers in various fields totally unrelated to cricket or sport in general.

It’s been a very big deal indeed, and continues to be so with the promise by NSW Premier, Mike Baird, after consulting with the Hughes family, of a state memorial service. The first Test against India was postponed to help players get themselves together, attend Phillip’s funeral service, and simply be with their grief for a while. The Queen of England sent a message of condolence to his family.

Wow. I wonder what Phillip, Phil himself would have thought of it all? When the story began he was named Phil, but as the gravity of his situation, and his declining fortunes progressed, he became the more formal, baptismal Phillip, out of a sense of respect, I guess. But would Phil, the apparently knockabout country boy with a heart of gold and a lovely personality and equally admirable character, have recognised that fellow with the very upright, two-syllable name who was being eulogised by the PM himself?

It’s a kind of association that we crave, I think. The association with a pure spirit, an innocent in some ways, a man not so long beyond adolescence and boyhood playing a game for passion and fun and in search of an unattainable but worthy goal: a balletic splendour of batting perfection in the face of each and every bowling challenge. He was an athlete in the prime of his life who died young. To all intents and purposes, despite the following two days in hospital, he went out with his spikes on right in the middle of doing what he loved with people for whom he cared deeply, and watched with admiration by fans, including two of his biggest supporters, his mother and sister.

Beyond this, we still, despite or perhaps because of the fact that most of us live in cities on the edge of the continent, revere the country boy, the lad who comes from the land and makes good in town, and who will return to the bush once his job is done and dusted.  He is above suspicion, his motives pure, his virtues luminous and brighter than the big city’s awful and artificial lights. He is a walking exemplar of goodness and decency and grace, to be emulated and looked upon not with envy but with love and only good wishes for his success against the greatest of odds: his humble and simple, but never simplistic, origins. He becomes the man that boys admire and imitate, the man that other, more worldly, city-slicker men protect, in whose friendship they take pride. He is the man women cherish and desire, the untainted hero. And, as a bonus, he is a hero who wields not a gun, but a cricket bat. He doesn’t kill the opposition for a living, he plays against them, he plays, for heaven’s sake, and for much of the time he plays beautifully.

The shock of his death is its circumstance, the circumstance of a game played for entertainment and pleasure, and simply so often for the sake of it, and not for money and status as such, though the money and status at the upper echelons are great, and the status acts as an umbrella of sorts, almost a hothouse beneath and within which these special flowers bloom, so that when disaster occurs, and it occurs infrequently in this way, it is catastrophic and tragic and, at first, almost beyond understanding.

The shock of his death is the rarity of its circumstance. An amazingly rare vertebral artery dissection, according to medical specialists, with only around 100 reported cases. Very rare, certainly, in a world of billions of our species.

The fact that Phillip Hughes played at the very top of the cricketing tree, as a wearer of the baggy green cap, elevates these circumstances even more. And he was a grafter, a worker, who earned his way in more than once, and was poised to do so again. The reaction has been not unlike the one that greeted Princess Diana’s death. It was all unbelievable – the reaction, the circumstance of her death, the very fact that it happened at all. Several more decades were supposed to pass before she passed. Wasn’t she too significant, too important, too special, too loved, too good, to be prematurely felled by such a random act, such a violent act when you think about it? Just like Phillip Hughes.

We draw these conclusions post-mortem. They’re a form of comfort, of self-soothing, and they’re writ large today because we are a public culture more than we are a private culture now. Emotions we used to regard as private: grief, sadness, despair, are at home  in social media. The gadgets ensure this and for everyone involved or who wishes to involve themselves, it’s essential that they, that we – for it is we – that we share our grief and concern, our care and our brotherly and sisterly love, online , with each other, with everyone, with perfect strangers who become, momentarily, friends, united by sadness. It proves our dedication: we’re here, we’re looking, we see, and we don’t want anyone to think that we aren’t dedicated, so we blog and tweet and Facebook and text, and so on and on.

This is how we honour Phillip Hughes: with our attention and our time and our care, our love, even though very few of us knew him personally. And we take a little of his pure spirit with us as we travel our days, still here, still dancing down our own personal wickets, and as we wonder how it may go for us when we step up and take our final guard.

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