Towards a kinder, gentler game
As the reality of Phillip Hughes' tragic passing is felt across street corners, by water coolers, on social media, in corners of pubs and cafés, it leaves us all cold, blue and confused.
As cricketers we reflect deeply. How did we ourselves all dodge this moment?
I must have been hit 20 times above the shoulders, in the neck, throat and head, in over 25 years of playing the game, and shrugged it off, as we all did. All the moments came flooding back: cut above eye, 1972; front tooth in 1980; twice cleaned up in the back of the head by Jeff Thomson on debut in Wellington in 1982; nailed above the ear by Holding in 1985 in Georgetown; jaw split open by a Bruce Reid steepler in Christchurch in 1986; hit in the temple by a Sylvester Clarke dart in 1987 at Taunton; smashed in the front cheek at short point in Auckland in 1988. Through the eighties, a few bullets dodged, yet there were many more, especially against the fire in Babylon known as the West Indies, that missed by half a bee's proverbial.
In 1990, the hits kept coming more frequently, the odds shortening, as I went through a bizarre series of near misses; hit in the throat by a beamer delivered by Manoj Prabhakar in Dunedin; months later struck between the eyes by a deflection from the keeper to me at first slip and hospitalised at Chelmsford; and finally the over by Wasim Akram in Lahore in November that forced me to wear a grill on my helmet for good, albeit a cut-down top-bar-removed version.
Twice my life flashed before me as he reverse swung two bouncers millimetres from my retreating open face. With a grill on, I felt my mouth protected, but I was adamant my eyes were unimpeded by the sight of steel bars, so the top bar was removed by my own saw. Two balls could fit between helmet and grill, and that gave me enough comfort to know I could see the ball at all times.
None of these fine folk meant any spite or malice, although I am not convinced Andy Roberts' two deliberate consecutive beamers at Taunton in 1984 were delivered with any grace or goodwill. We all have these kinds of moments in the game that we endured somehow. We were lucky. Hughes didn't deserve not enjoying the same luck. Why does such a good kid, on track to finally nail that spot he so wanted and so deserved, become the first after so long?
Not to say that this has anything to do with the fate that befell him, but he was treated poorly by the Test selectors too often. Twenty-six Tests was the number it took Steve Waugh to chalk up his first Test century, and he went on to score 31 more. Up and down the order, in and out of the team, but Hughes kept positively grinding it out to wear the baggy green once more.
We can learn to be more patient with youth when they start out. They need to be able to make mistakes and learn from them in the same environment they failed. You can't keep going backwards to go forwards. In Test cricket you need those 26 Tests to get the whole education. Instead, Hughes had short stints to prove his stellar gift, got knocked over as expected, then discarded flippantly, and no doubt was bruised by the inconsistency of it all.
On a wider note, we can also learn that the game needs to calm down. I wrote in the Wisden Almanack this year that the tone of the game is in need of a serious retuning. You can't say publicly that an opponent has scared eyes, that you have got them cornered just because you have the mean, nasty fasty on your team, winging it down at maximum speed. This is not the uncouth WWF or heavyweight boxing. You should be respectful. You can't threaten an opponent to get ready for a broken arm.
Removing the lip, that negative intent, is what we can learn. By all means bowl bouncers with skill and precision, but take out the angst and hate, the sledging and the media barbs, and just go out and express your version of your courage and skill for your team. Show the youth of today the right way to play the game respectfully, hard and fair. The game has turned too lippy, too edgy. Let's chill a bit in general, as a good lesson and reminder, to keep the game authentic.
Despite this critical reference to David Warner and Clarke last year at the Gabba, my heart goes out to them now, in particular as the two of them have as close a tie to Hughes as any. As my brother Jeff and I felt for David Hookes, a close family friend, a decade ago (and have ever since; a picket from Adelaide Oval serves as a daily reminder) this will be hard to bear for Hughes' present team-mates. I can only offer them all my deepest compassion.
On that same note, we all feel for young Sean Abbott. He is not guilty of any angst, of wanting any mental disintegration in his opponent, for he was going about learning his trade, trying to get a man in form out, to keep growing his stock at the nursery level to help get him to the big stage. He bowled a skilful ball, right over off stump, perfect height to challenge the pull or hook to entice a catch. He was doing his job earnestly.
Abbott has a job on hand, letting go of what is no doubt a recurring nightmare, but he must over time. He must try and draw on the courage and skill he undoubtedly possesses; he must get back on the horse this summer, if he can. We wish this fine talent nothing but strength.
People ask me: will this change the game? Yes, it will, I say. Any time a moment like this occurs, it will have an effect.
Gradually it should become less critical to win at all costs. We should smile when stumps are drawn and be grateful for the day's cricket, the genuine sharing of camaraderie between two teams. We can calm this game down by playing with more joy within, the kind one impressive Phillip Hughes showed. In that, he displayed a sageness rare in one so raw, a mature hand and an old head, showing us what we need to do.
Finally, in respect of a player who epitomised all that is great about life: endeavour, purpose, courage, and humility - Phillip Hughes gave the game integrity. We will miss that spirit, we will never forget his last undefeated innings.
Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand