March 18, 2013

Kim Hughes: Shots out of heaven

Australian cricket should have treated Kim Hughes much, much better and left him alone to do what he did best: play the most dazzling cricket strokes imaginable

In my book Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket, in the chapter on media coverage of cricket, I write:

Viewing the highlights reel of Kim Hughes's 214 against India at Adelaide in the 1980-81 series is an awe-inspiring experience. Channel 9's telecast showcases the most attractive and dynamic strokeplayer of the modern era in full flight. What makes the experience complete are the slow-motion replays of Hughes's shots. Again and again, a perfect cricket photograph springs up and passes away. That momentary glimpse is enough. Hughes strikes us speechless; the power and beauty of his shots in slow motion come through as never before; the rewind button does double duty.

Clearly, I seem to think a great deal of Kim Hughes (even though I have got his score wrong!). His batting is 'awe-inspiring', he is 'the most attractive and dynamic strokeplayer of the modern era'; 'the power and beauty of his shots' strike me 'speechless'. I meant all of it; I never been shy about my reverential attitude towards' Hughes' batting. When I reviewed Christian Ryan's Golden Boy over at Different Strokes I had made note of this admiration, and then, in my last post, on the 1979-80 Australian tour of India, wrote that Hughes produced in me a species of fandom that can scarcely be rivaled. What did he do to inspire such obsession?

His batting, that running down the pitch to quick and slow alike, those amazing shots, his trigger-happy hooking and pulling, obviously, are the main reasons why, but there were other factors too. Over time and culminating with his downfall, I came to see him as a forlorn figure deserving my sympathy, one who should have been one of the all-time greats but who was betrayed by his board and his teammates alike, who was hounded by an unsympathetic media, who could not--or was not allowed to--do justice to his talents and ultimately had to fade from the scene into almost complete obscurity. (There was never any chance that he would earn a commentary deal from Channel 9.) There is an element of the tragic in his story; most thinking cricket fans would agree, I think.

From the beginning, stuck as I was in my traditionalist mode during the Packer era, Hughes almost immediately struck me as a gallant figure, loyal to the nation, someone who had stepped into the breach to take on the responsibility of Australian captaincy when mercenaries could not be bothered. I had heard about his batting already; his fighting century in the Brisbane Test of the 1978-79 Ashes and his batting in that dismal series had ensured he had a fan in India by the time his team landed on Indian shores in 1979. That series cemented his status in my pantheon of cricketing heroes. I had not seen anyone, bar Zaheer Abbas, bat so confidently and gracefully against Indian spin. After that series, I tracked his career obsessively, plunging into gloom when he did badly and soaring with elation when he did well. One of the most depressing days in my youth dawned when I awoke one morning to find out he had been dismissed for 99 against England, and some of the happiest came when he scored his epic 100 against the West Indies at Melbourne in 1981-82, 117 and 84 in the 1980 Centenary Test, and of course, that 213 against India at Adelaide in 1980-81. I did not mind him scoring runs against India, not one bit.

Needless to say I was crushed by the 1981 Ashes, and not just because England won. Hughes was captaining an almost full-strength team, one that should have regained the Ashes. (They were not contested in the 1979-80 series.) It was his bad luck and theirs, that the Australians ran into Ian Botham at his best,. but again, it didn't seem like the Australian team was fully behind him. I grew defensive of Hughes, regarding his treatment by the Australian board as nothing short of criminal. I developed an aggressive dislike of Greg Chappell and his selective touring, and thought Lillee and Marsh should have been banned for life for their betting against their own team. I was a Hughes fanboy all right.

It was his misfortune too, as captain, to run into the West Indies when they were at the peak of their powers; his career ended with a string of ducks and defeats and tears. But he had done enough by then, even if only sporadically, to convince me that I had seen the most audacious player of his time. Too many cricket fans now only remember his tearful farewell and let it cloud their impressions of him. They are right in one regard; his final batting average of 37 does not speak well of his achievements. In his defense, all I can say is that Australian cricket should have treated him much, much better and left alone to do what he did best: play the most dazzling cricket strokes imaginable. The perfect antidote to any resentment caused by the memory of Australian cricket's treatment of Hughes is to go watch some YouTube clips of his batting. Hours well spent. Trust me; you won't regret it.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here