In the small hours of Wednesday morning I listened to a ‘live’ relay of the funeral service of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes taking place in the small town of Macksville in New South Wales as broadcast by on the Up All Night programme hosted by Rhod Sharp on Radio Five Live.
Hughes, as every sports fan will know, died tragically two days after being hit by a ball behind the ear, in a place unprotected by the brand of helmet he was wearing, or (should I say) at least the particular version of the brand of headgear he was wearing, because the manufacturer quickly put out a report that a later – or indeed the latest – version might have produced a different outcome.
Be that as it may, Hughes’ death has naturally resulted in an extraordinary outpouring of grief, expressions of support and tribute from every corner of the world of cricket and those who knew him – cricket bats left upon fields of play, or at grounds, in many sports all featuring the ‘Phillip Hughes: 63 not out’ strap-line – and a widespread media general discussion over player safety in cricket. The last of these has not shied away from the fact that historically in many sports, and not just at elite level, ‘gamesmanship’ (e.g. sledging) and confrontation designed to gain a psychological edge have always been part and parcel of the contest, just as much as features of aggressive/intimidatory fast bowling such as bouncers, yorkers and persistent short-pitched deliveries.
Those discussions continue and my purpose today is neither to add my sixpennyworth nor draw any conclusions on the topic.
As I understand it, at the time of his death Hughes was not a certain starter for Australian test team although he was playing himself back into form and contention. He was undoubtedly a very popular young man and seemed a chip off the old block of a worthy Australian myth (perhaps originated and epitomised by the nonpareil Don Bradman) – viz. the talented country boy who learned his cricketing skills in a farm back yard and grew up to live out his ambition of playing in the famous ‘baggy green’ cap.
Nobody who listened to the ‘live’ feed of the funeral – or indeed heard the ‘recorded highlights version’ as played over and over by Radio Five Live during the day – could fail to have been moved by the addresses to the 5,000-strong congregation by Jason and Megan, Hughes’ brother and sister; by Corey Ireland, the middle-aged cattle farmer who had been mentoring Hughes in his goal of becoming a cattle farmer after his playing days were over; by Michael Clark, the Australian cricket captain; and lastly by James Sutherland, CEO of Cricket Australia.
Clark, ever since the accident, had been reluctantly in the spotlight in terms of Australian cricket’s reaction – receiving general acclaim for his performance, despite his evident personal anguish. The closing words of his address, delivered whilst struggling with his emotions, caught the headlines:
“Phillip’s spirit, which is now part of our game forever, will act as a custodian of the sport we all love. We must listen to it, we must cherish it, we must learn from it. We must dig in … [pause] … we must dig in … and get through to tea … [pause] … And we must play on.
So rest in peace, my little brother – I’ll see you out in the middle …”
This may be considered an odd or inappropriate comment by some but, raw and natural though it was, I am not generally a fan of displays of open emotion (such as Clark’s above) at funerals.
Whilst accepting that the feelings expressed in Clark’s performance were instinctive, sincere and genuine, for me – unfortunately – they tended to revive memories of the unseemly mass ‘loss of sense of proportion’ that occurred after the death of Princess Diana.
In this instance, for me, the brief (heartfelt and direct) eulogy given last by Cricket Australia’s James Sutherland was near-perfect.
Most important, it covered all the things that most of those present (or listening from thousands of miles away, as I was) would like to have heard said about a talented and much-loved person who had passed on all too early … and perhaps inside recognised that we’d have struggled to compose as competently ourselves, had the task fallen to us.