Every day, as I read the news and check my social media pages, I see reports of the deaths of strangers: the victims of the violence of man and nature. Some die in storms, others in floods; some are shot by the police, others blown up by bombs; some are killed by individuals, some by the state; some die in unfortunate accidents. Some are young, some old. These occurrences evoke in me varying reactions. Sometimes they infuriate and enrage me enough for me to take action like marching in a protest or performing acts of civil disobedience and spending the day in jail. Sometimes I pass over the numbers in blasé silence, made numb by distance and unfamiliarity. Sometimes I wish I could feel more, so that I could reassure myself of my humanity; sometimes, when I see the toll such concern exacts on body and mind, I wish I could feel less.
Sometimes I am moved, uncomfortably and painfully, to tears. I feel no compulsion to "man up", to be a "big boy".
I never met Phillip Hughes. I never shook his hand, never shared a beer with him, never talked to him. I only saw him on television, never live at a ground. I've only seen images of him: hitting boundaries, grinning and raising his bat, struggling with technical deficiencies in his batting, battling against spin.
He was a stranger for all practical purposes.
But yet he was not, because he played a game, the following and devotion to which has played a large role in my life. (Perhaps more than it should.) He played with the same instruments I did: he took up a bat and faced a bowler who had a ball in his hand. He was much, much better than I ever was or could be at that game, at an art I gave up trying to master, and now only seek to admire in others.
Hughes was familiar because he was Australian. I lived in Australia for two years; some of my best friends are Australian; I played cricket in Australia, and went to see many games in that land with my Australian friends.
As I looked at, again and again, the sombre photographs of Hughes' funeral, I saw the familiar bright glare of the Australian summer sun, the distinctive flora and fauna of the New South Wales country visible on the road on which his funeral cortège passed, the signs of the Australian country town. These reminded me I was not paying witness to the utterly strange. One of the languages I use to talk about cricket is English, and a distinctive varietal of it comes in an Australian accent. In its intonations I could hear, in its own particular way, expressions of grief that were able to cut through the distances of time and space and penetrate my inner being.
"Sometimes at night, when I lie in bed, next to my wife, I can hear her heart beating, thumping away with its own peculiar rhythm. I feel terrified at the thought that this biomechanical arrangement is all that keeps alive my loved ones"
Hughes' death was made familiar because the horror of it all is never too distant on a cricket field. Like many others, I realised at some point in my playing of cricket that I could never be too good at it, because, quite simply, over and above technical competence, the top level of the game demands a certain kind of courage too, the mastery of fear when facing another human being who is allowed to send a hard projectile at your head at 140kph. (If you consider yourself an amateur physicist, calculate the impact of that five and a half ounces on a body and flesh, and think about the consequences that might ensue. It only needs ten pounds per square inch to break a human bone.) Those few fatal moments after he was struck by the cricket ball have been seen by us before: the sickening blow, the crumpled batsman, the concerned fielders, the carrying off the field. This time they did not end with a brave return and a wave to the crowd.
Hughes' death was a reminder of the fragility of life. Sometimes at night, when I lie in bed, next to my wife, I can hear her heart beating, thumping away with its own peculiar rhythm. I feel terrified at the thought that this biomechanical arrangement, this curiously autonomous homeostatic device, is all that keeps alive my loved ones. I know how fragile the human body is, and how strong. Sometimes you hear of survivors of brutal car crashes - their bodies mangled, their bones broken, they are airlifted to distant hospitals and then years later, with only a few scars visible, they are back, out and about. Sometimes humans survive at sea, on high mountains, for unreasonable periods of time. And sometimes, cruelly, one sharp blow is all it takes. A push, a fall, a projecting outcrop of metal or rock, an electrical malfunction, a failed brake, and it's all over. In the most familiar of places for Hughes: a cricket pitch, doing what he clearly loved the most.
Hughes died young. His death subjected his parents to the worst pain of all: the passing of their offspring, their beloved son, well before he could start a family of his own, put down adequate roots, establish himself to his own satisfaction in his chosen profession. His promise, his potential, remained, cruelly, only partially realised, now frozen into flickering images and static photographs. If you've seen that pain at close quarters, the searing quality of it is not easily forgotten. That reminder of the cruelty of this world is not easily forgotten.
The ambit of our moral concern is necessarily limited. We cannot care about all and sundry; we restrict our attention to persons closest to us. But sometimes bridges are built that traverse those gaps and bring us closer to the hearts and minds of those distant from us. And we gain an opportunity to learn of the commonality of the human condition, how the same pains and fears and hopes and joys can devastate and animate us. Sometimes that bridge can be built by travel, by friendships. And sometimes, by a game. By bat and ball.