25th November 2014. I still remember that day. It started off as just another day as I set out to college for my classes – those monotonous hours of boring lectures. Little did I know that it wasn’t meant to be and there was more in store.
But, I knew soon. Far away in Australia, a cricketer had been felled by a short-pitched bouncer. Well, that wasn’t the first time. Batsmen getting hit on the helmet is quite a common sight in cricket. Or so, I thought, before I went back to my room and watched with horror, those visuals. Scenes I had never ever seen before.
Phillip Hughes – Australian cricketer with a combined experience of 26 Tests and 25 ODIs - was batting on 63 for his state side South Australia in the Sheffield Shield match against the New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
After getting off to a solid start, he was looking good enough to make a century and stake a claim for a place in the Australian side for the first Test against India. It was the 49th over on Day 1 of that first class match. New South Wales pacer Sean Abbott steamed in to bowl a short pitched bouncer. Hughes’ troubles against short pitched bowling was a poorly kept secret in the cricketing circles and probably it was a strategy to unsettle him.
Hughes misjudged the pace of the ball and in attempting to hook the ball, went early into his shot. The ball struck him on his helmet. Was that all? No, it wasn’t that usual sight of a batsman momentarily shaken by the ball thudding into his helmet. There was something so eerie about it, from the moment he was struck.
In the next few seconds, the world watched in horror. As the players ran in to check on him, Hughes, first moved to the side of the pitch, hunched on his knees and then collapsed on the pitch, flat on his face. The ball had struck him, not on the helmet; it had sneaked past it to thud into an unprotected part of his neck, to deem him unconscious, forever.
27th of November – On this day, two years back, Phil Hughes retired his life at 63 not out. As the news started trickling down, it sent down shockwaves not only in the cricketing world but also among the followers of the sport.
While Phil Hughes was battling for his life, battles on the cricket field continued. England were engaged in an ODI series in Sri Lanka. Pakistan were playing a Test match against New Zealand in Sharjah. India were in Australia and set to start the 1st Test match of their long tour.
One thought that struck me was whether Hughes’ unfortunate death would send shivers down the spines of the cricketers who were to play. Would their daily chores of batting and bowling suddenly become a dreaded prospect? Would the sight of a fast bowler running in and hurling the ball at pace frighten the batsmen out of his wits? Would fast bowlers have second thoughts about attempting to bowl a bouncer again?
Questions were aplenty in my mind. Quite evidently, in the minds of the cricketers as well as the game’s administrators too.
At Sharjah, play on Day 2 of the deciding Test between Pakistan and New Zealand was suspended and the match was extended by a day after the players learned of the tragedy an hour before the game was due to start. India called off their pre-series tour match against the Cricket Australia XI and rumours flew, about the possibility of the first Test in Brisbane, scheduled a week after, being abandoned.
Four of the players who were on the field at that moment of tragedy – David Warner, Shane Watson, Brad Haddin and Nathan Lyon – were slated to be a part of the Aussie side for the 1st Test against India in Brisbane, a week later. Eventually, the series started at Adelaide while the Brisbane Test was pushed back to a later date. The round of Sheffield Shield matches were also abandoned immediately after the news of Hughes’ misfortune broke out.
A #PutOutYourBats campaign ensued on social media. Millions of cricket fans and several cricketers and celebrities from other walks of life showed solidarity to this gesture by putting their bats out as a tribute to Phil. Around the world, bats were lined up in front of homes, outside cricket grounds and in the dressing rooms.
In Colombo, the England team management offered their players the choice to opt out of the match – some of them had played with Phil in the country circuit. England and Sri Lanka paid their respects to Hughes before the start of their second one-day international by joining for a two-minute silence in honour of the Australian batsman and took the field wearing black armbands.
In solidarity for the social media campaign, players of both teams lined up their bats and caps in the balcony of their dressing rooms.
The Sydney Cricket Stadium, where Hughes fell one last time, honoured him with a plaque outside the Aussie dressing room and 63 bats in the Members Stand, during the 4th Test of the series between India and Australia.
Till that tragic day, Phil Hughes was just another cricketer – one who was talented and set for bigger feats but yet to do enough to take the cricketing world by storm, whose technical deficiencies against spin and susceptibility to short pitched bowling were well documented. Till that day, I had never followed his game. Yes, like any keen follower of the game, I was aware of a Phil Hughes who played for Australia. But that was it. Until that day, not many believed that a cricket ball could kill and this was a glorious uncertainty of the game.
Only till that day. Since then, few images continue to haunt minds like the one I saw on that fateful day, of Phil Hughes – a young cricketer falling from life to death on the pitch of his dreams, just days short of his 26th birthday.
(Video courtesy: cricket.com.au)