December 4, 2014

The spirit of Hughes, the spirit of cricket

Stop the rancour, stop the sledging, play the game and ignite the friendships that make it so special

Will the death of Phillip Hughes bring some much-needed introspection to cricket? © Getty Images

"Is this what we call the spirit of cricket?" asked Michael Clarke. And indisputably the answer was yes. In a concise, brave and hugely pertinent tribute to Phillip Hughes, the Australian captain opened the eyes of the game. The spirit of cricket is in its people, in their respect for one another and in their respect for the game. Clarke recognised this and found the words to say so.

Since the appalling news that Hughes' fight had been lost, a beautiful thing has emerged. Cricket has united through a cascade of love and compassion. The town of Macksville has led the way, with its dignity and strength. From Macksville to Mumbai and on to Manchester, people have grieved for the parting from one so gifted and for the scar that it leaves upon the game. Now the players can heal that scar, and again Clarke said as much. "Phillip's spirit, which is now a part of our game forever, will act as a custodian of the sport we love." Clarke paused, drew breath, held his nerve and added, " We must listen to it, we must cherish it, we must learn from it, we must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on."

With those words, Clarke has thrown down the gauntlet. Stop the rancour, stop the sledging, play the game and ignite the friendships that make it so special. Sledging is not "a part of the game", as is so loosely proposed. Playing "tough" cricket does not mean playing ugly cricket. Witness Hutton, Benaud, the Nawab of Pataudi and Sobers and the standards they set that have long since become extinct.

Instead, applaud your opponent for his skill and his courage, for without these there is no game. Do not be ashamed of kindness because the energy that comes from it is the energy of life. Cricket deserves more than has come its way of late. It is a game at the crossroads and where we take it now will define its future forever. None of these ideals can bring Phillip back but they can begin the path of his legacy.

A remarkable service was held in Macksville yesterday. Through excruciating pain, messages of love, faith, family and belief were driven home to the thousands present and the tens of thousands more who watched on television and listened to radio. "Forever Young", a gloriously simple hymn of popular music, performed by the band Youth Group opened the occasion and Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" closed it. Phillip's father, Greg, carried the coffin front left and etched upon his face was the terrible truth. He was saying goodbye.

As the funeral cortège made its way though the streets of a typically loyal and insular Australian country town, people lined the pavements with bats and hats and stumps and balls and signs bearing words that best described one of their own. A young one and a good one had been ripped from their grasp and their ashen faces told you they knew not why. Even the men of the church struggle with that one. No one knows why. But some can find a reason and can see hope.

Lessons must be learnt. This shocking accident was not so one-off. David Richardson, chief executive of the ICC, told me how Michael Meeser and his wife lost their 11-year-old son to an eerily similar incident in 2009. Daniel was practicing at the Daryll Cullinan cricket academy in South Africa and, though wearing a helmet, was struck just behind his left ear attempting a sweep shot. He remained standing for a while before collapsing, much as Hughes did at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The neurosurgeon operated to remove some of the skull in order to relieve pressure on the brain from the bleeding but Daniel never regained consciousness. Three days later, he died.

Many years ago, the father of a close friend of mine died from almost exactly the same blow in an English club game. Nick Kemp was playing for Kent against Middlesex in a Sunday League match when told that his father, John, had been rushed to hospital and was undergoing brain surgery. John Kemp spent three months in a coma and did not recover. This was before helmets, of course, but the point is that this area of the neck/skull is weak and a modification of the helmet is required to provide urgent protection.

Cricket is a game for all people, of all temperaments, in all moods. It has long run parallel to life - and we live in an impatient and contrary age - but it doesn't have to reflect the lowest common denominators of that life

The suggestion that short-pitched bowling should be limited, or even banned, makes little sense. The argument might then recommend that tackles are taken out of rugby, obstacles from racing's jump season, tight and potentially dangerous surges from Formula 1 drivers. The very nature of sport demands courage and instinct. From this comes much of its pleasure, albeit that it is often reflected. Many of the strokes that make batsmen such as Viv Richards and Ricky Ponting so admired came against bowling that is pitched short. Many of the fast bowling moments that are etched in our memory come from brilliant, dramatic exploitation of the short ball. What is needed is strong, intelligent umpiring and sensible understanding of a late-order batsman's ability.

Shane Warne showed me a picture of New Zealand players in Sharjah he had seen on Twitter today. The words and stats on it read: "NZ bowled 1135 balls in 3rd test match, not even a single bouncer. Took all 20 wickets, didn't even celebrate a single wicket. Williamson didn't celebrate his 50, 100 and 150. McCullum didn't celebrate his 100,150,200. McCullum dedicated his double ton to Hughes, played with jersey written 'PH' on it. This team has won a million hearts as well as the test match." Now that is the spirit of the game. Of course, it is not the only way to do it - and the absence of bouncers sure works best on the pitches in the Middle East - but it is an attitude and an option worth review.

There is a banter to cricket that should never be disregarded, and an effervescence of personality that can be encouraged in myriad guises. We don't want soft cricket. Or a game without emotion or reaction. Even anger has its place, especially when directed into performance. Cricket is a game for all people, of all temperaments, in all moods. It has long run parallel to life - and we live in an impatient and contrary age - but it doesn't have to reflect the lowest common denominators of that life. As Martin Crowe wisely wrote in these pages last week: "Towards a kinder, gentler game."

Before leaving Macksville today I came face to face with Greg, Phillip's father, whom I had not previously met. I told him how much I admired his son. He replied that he was immensely proud of both Phil and his siblings Jason and Megan, who had spoken so well.

I drove away thinking that Phil led a great team: Hughes (captain; Mark Taylor will surely agree), Hayden, Ponting, Lara, Waugh M, Clarke, Gilchrist, Hadlee, Warne, Lee, McGrath. No place for Langer, Slater, Kohli, two Marshes of different blood, Shastri, MacGill, Johnson - okay, maybe swap him for Lee - Harris and numerous others who would be in the selectors' thoughts.

The fact is, the very best were in town to honour and celebrate a young life, somehow realised in just under 26 years. Yes, there was more, much more to give. But if Clarke is right, if the spirit and the energy that is Phillip Hughes can live on, the game and its future will be safer and richer and brighter.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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