When death is no parenthesis: farewell, Phillip Hughes

Ammy Singh



Even as a Test cricketer, Phillip Hughes’ dream never changed.

A working class, country kid in the mould of McGrath and Bradman before him, Hughes long harboured the humble goal of running an Angus stud cattle farm after the conclusion of his professional cricketing career.

“If all goes to plan, that’s what I want to do with my dad,” he said, upon his return from a successful maiden Test series in South Africa in 2009. “That’s my dream.”

In the five years since, he and his father purchased property and named the business Four O Eight Angus, after Hughes’ Australian Test cap number.

On Tuesday, during a Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and Hughes’ former NSW side, those plans went astray with the thud of a common bouncer from young quick, Sean Abbott. By Thursday afternoon, Hughes’ life had slipped through his fingers like sand, and those plans along with it, felled by the very instrument of Hughes’ profession.

Phillip Joel Hughes lived out 25 years on this planet chasing the greatest of his sporting dreams, only to see the remainder wrenched from his grasp, just three days shy of his 26th birthday. The game is changed forever, and flags across the world fly at half-mast as a community mourns for the warm, unaffected young man stranded forever on 63 not out.

The loss is all the more frightening because it is the unimaginable woven into the very fabric of reality.

After all, surely freak accidents such as this only exist in the blurred edges of society, safely obscured by unrecognisable names and the dulling power of human memory? When the name is suddenly recognisable, what was once a freak accident becomes an acute reminder of how fragile our grasp on life is.

But Phillip Hughes never did need to be reminded of this Ferris Bueller-esque maxim to live in the moment, because he was already busy doing exactly that.

A precocious young cricketer with a universally appealing demeanour, Hughes’ homespun technique took him from his family’s 12 hectare banana farm in the northern New South Wales town of Macksville, to the youngest Shield debut for the NSW Blues since Michael Clarke in 1999, to salutations of ‘Little Don’ following his feat of becoming the youngest man to score a century in both innings of a Test match at Durban in 2009.

Hughes’ penchant for the cut-shot through the off-side was borne of a childhood imperative to avoid hitting the family house on his leg-side during unrelenting games of backyard cricket. Hitting the chook pen entailed four runs; hitting the clothesline brought 25 runs.

When he received his baggy green from Ricky Ponting on tour against South Africa, he was shaking. His parents, Greg and Virginia, watched on at Johannesburg. It was the first overseas trip they had ever taken.

Months later at home, Hughes kept the baggy green locked away in a pouch in a corner of his wardrobe, checking every day to ensure it was still there. He confessed to smelling it at times to take in the memories of alcohol-drenched victories in South Africa. Such was the magic of the baggy green for him.

This starry-eyed take on life saw Hughes through the most difficult of periods in 2011, during the nadir of his career, when form evaded him at every turn and the overthinking of his technique led to private struggles that Hughes bore without complaint. Appropriately, Justin Langer had once dubbed Hughes the ‘smiling assassin’.

In time, the runs came again, as they always did for Hughes. When he fell unconscious on 63 not out, he did so during the pursuit of a likely Test recall against India next week.

Though cricket is the sound of the Australian summer, this summer may very well be one of hushed silence.

Death is the embodiment of a life unrealised; of potential untapped. As the ripples of grief drift across a continent, the true impact of Hughes’ passing will be borne out in the corridors of homes, the uncomfortably empty corner of dressing rooms, the gatherings heavy with a tangible absence, and in the air thick with words left unsaid.

The late Roger Ebert once said, “This is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.”

And therein lies Hughes’ salvation. In this we can be confident: as long as a family, nation, and cricketing community remember Hughes, he will remain immortal.

As the late e. e. cummings put it, life is not a paragraph, and death is no parenthesis.

Phillip Hughes was genuine, determined, and perennially optimistic, with an infectious grin that his loved ones will spend a lifetime conjuring up in their minds. But most of all, Phillip Hughes was human. And in the end, despite the best-laid plans, that’s what got him.

The boy from the banana farm has come and gone, and our battered hearts swell in his wake.

Ammy Singh is a business reporter, freelancer, and editor of Tharunka. She tweets at @ammyed.