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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on March 21, 2013, 14:43 GMT

    Sir, you have done me a lifetime favor by writing this piece. Before this, I have only heard of Kim Hughes, how unfortunately he had to retire in front of the whole world. Never knew how great a player he was? As per your recommendation, I saw the footage of his batting on youtube. I can swear, an evening of my life well spent. Now I wish if I were a teenager in the 80s. I particularly love his hit through the covers. From back foot, from front foot, from the crease, advancing down the track, grounded, lofted.. those shots were to die for. Such power, such elegance. Still replaying his 213 against India and I can feel now why you didn't mind even if scored against us. Thank you Sir, Hope I will get to know about some more great players from older days via your blog.

  • Tim on March 19, 2013, 9:15 GMT

    As an Englishman, Hughes was one of the enemy but you are so right about his style and grace - a freeze frame of almost every shot produces classic photographs. I was lucky enough to be at the Centenary Test at Lords and one of my abiding cricket-watching memories is seeing Hughes effortlessly lift a six over the pavilion roof off (I think) Chris Old - an amazing shot in any age, but especially without a modern day bat.

    But having praised one of the old enemy, to restore balance, one of my favourite cricket photographs is that of Hughes narrowly evading a Bob Willis bouncer at Headingley in 1981 - the terror on his face is palpable!

  • Dummy4 on March 19, 2013, 8:31 GMT

    Samir, ran out of space. Dyson, Wellham, Kent, T Chappell - awful. no tests between the last 3. Yallop and Wood - iffy. Hughes and Border - great. One seamer short, especially after Lawson broke down. and two non-spinners. and no leggie for the first time in however long, maybe 60 years? still they should have won 3-2. give the Poms Headingley, it was a miracle, but Australia's real choke was Edgbaston, we dominated that game and collapsed under the weight of Headingley and the disunited team/ Sadly, Hughes chucking his did away under the pressure for me was, in hindsight, the pointer that he shouldn't skipper.

    My favourite innings: the cameo against Bedi in 77-8 in Sydney (I was there), the 99 at the WACA (in at 3-20, next best 42); the Centenary Test x 2; the 98 in the ODI before that; Adelaide v India, the driving of Yadav just ridiculously good; the ton v Pakistan at Perth under pressure; the famous MCG ton v the Windies; 73* against the Windies under lights at the SCG in a ODI...

  • Dummy4 on March 19, 2013, 8:22 GMT

    Samir, I like your stuff. I was a mental Hughes tragic, even had a "Hughes for Captain" t-shirt made up in 80-1 (my brother got "Doug walters for PM", and given how bad Mal Fraser was, that was a good shout.)

    30 years on, I oscillate on Kim. At his best he was sublime. But he butchered so many innings with dumb shots - probably the most palpable was against India at the G in 80-1, the last over before lunch. Border ground a boring century, Hughes murdered a good start (24).

    His batting on the last OS tours -when he was captain - was not good enough... England 81, Pakistan 82 and windies 84. Clearly the pressure of captaincy affected his batting. His desire for captaincy wasn't matched by his skill, and we lost our best batsman.

    But he was sublime on days. I would give anything to watch the 80 Centenary Test knocks again. I was 15 and stayed up for nights, watching cameos in between the rain.

    I agree re Lillee and Marsh after Headingley. But I can't stomach the 81 team being strong

  • Sal on March 19, 2013, 8:12 GMT

    Excellent article Samir. I watched a lot of Kim Hughes batting and he was wonderful to watch. He was a much better batsman than his Test average of 37. My two most memorable Hughes innings were: 1. I was in attendance at the Gabba in December 1979 to witness first hand Hughes score 130 not out in Australia's second innings. He tore apart Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft and Collis King. His footwork was amazing. He danced down the wicket to these fast bowlers and hit them to all parts of the ground. 2. Boxing Day 1981 when Hughes scored 100 not out (Australia's team total was 198) against the West Indies attack of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. The MCG pitch in those days was not batting friendly. What happened to Kim throughout his career, particularly in the end, was a total miscarriage of justice!

  • Philip on March 19, 2013, 7:30 GMT

    Michael Clark would have a batting average about 40% higher than Kim Hughes'. This comparison does not do Hughes justice. He could bat. Indeed, he could really, really bat. Like an angel. But he wasn't one of the boys, so people got to him. Then he started batting like a very lost angel and sunk further in the public's mind by going to South Africa on a rebel tour (in a team which I think better than Clarke's present Test one). So history got written about him, not by him, and it tends to cast him in a rather unflattering light. Personally, I think he's due better than that. I wasn't happy when he went on a rebel tour of SA, but I couldn't blame him, given what had already happened. Hughes' story is complicated, the opposite of his batting. We all like simple narratives but sometimes things don't work out that way.

  • Dummy4 on March 18, 2013, 23:28 GMT

    my earliest memories of K.J.Hughes was from The Madras Game in LATE 79" in which he scored a Ton,and regaled us all with his dashing stroke play....quite loved his daredevil approach to batting ..remember he used a Bat Named"AUSTRAL" back then..Lovely Piece!

  • Dummy4 on March 18, 2013, 22:58 GMT

    his batting average of 37 is superior in this present Australian squad.. and look at the likes of the bowlers he had to face back then!! Says a heck of a lot for him and, sadly, very little for the current batch.

  • Pankaj on March 18, 2013, 21:16 GMT

    Well written article. I think Damien Martyn is the modern day Kim Hughes. A tremendous talent, one which was to shape Australia's future by taking up the mantle of captaincy ends up playing only 67 tests and goes through a few testing times in doing so. His hundred against South Africa in a winning cause (4th Innings run chase) should be part of cricketing folklore and so should be his display against India in the 2003 World cup final (Ponting always receiving the plaudits for his blitzkrieg). A truly underrated cricketer if ever there was one..