Bat away the tears

After thirty years and a day an Australian cricketer has finally disproved the adage that big boys don’t cry.

Bad light stopped play (c) 2013 Andy Rogers

Bad light stopped play (c) 2013 Andy Rogers

The coincidence is quite breath-taking. On November 26, 1984, in the middle of the world famous Ashes test series against old enemies England, Australian cricket captain Kim Hughes resigned on camera from his position as captain of the country’s cricket team. Bowed down by the toll his five years in the role had taken on him, Hughes was unable to deliver his message without breaking down in tears. In the end, he walked out with the interview unfinished and the camera pointing at an empty chair and a few bemused officials.

There were no waterworks, no tears rolling, just a slight tremble of the lip on a couple of occasions and a few deep breaths.

Thirty years later – almost to the day – on November 27, 2014, his namesake Phillip Hughes, another young Australian batsman, died after two days in a coma, as a result of being hit in the back of the neck by a cricket ball in a freak accident.

Since then, there has been an emotional outpouring across the media, both mainstream and social, expressing the world’s sympathy and most poignantly expressed when Australian captain Michael Clarke spoke on camera about how he had asked the cricketing authorities to retire Phil Hughes’s shirt number.

Again, there were a few deep breaths, a few sniffs, but mostly what we reflected on was the dignity of a man dealing publicly with a personal situation way beyond the bounds of what mere sport is capable of handling.

Back in 1984, I remember clearly watching Kim Hughes’s resignation on TV news. I also remember the delight on our English sports programmes that the Aussie captain had cracked. Hughes was to be replaced as captain by the much more gruff and dour Alan Border (he had a moustache) and he only played four more tests and scored a total of just two runs. After that he never played for Australia again.

Ever since, Kim Hughes’s resignation has been one of the ‘great’ stories of sporting collapse. Hughes had been tipped to be one of the greats, but he is remembered for being the captain who couldn’t take the pressure, and for the public personal humiliation he suffered on his resignation.

Hughes was blessed with talent. But his prodigious reputation was such that he was feared and bullied, rather than loved. He came into a national team that was full of older, more famous players, who resented him.

The Australians had achieved great success in the previous few years, winning at all costs through a mixture of talent, machismo and a ‘no-one likes us; we don’t care’ attitude. They were a team of steely glares, bristling moustaches and sweat – under baggy green caps. Hughes, on the other hand, liked to entertain as well as to win. He was seen as a dreamer and mentally weak. His resignation seemed to prove that, and he destroyed what was left of his reputation by going on to lead a rebel tour to apartheid-era South Africa. After that, it was OK to disregard him.

When I saw current Australian captain Michael Clarke crying on TV while reading out a tribute to his friend and colleague Phillip Hughes, it was shocking. He was dealing with profound loss and sadness and personal bereavement. The reaction has been universally positive, and the cricketing world – and many outside it – have also gathered round to console and offer support to Sean Abbott, the unfortunate player who bowled the fatal delivery.

A social media meme of photos of a cricket bat propped against a wall with a hat on it is going viral, along with the hashtag #putoutyourbats.

Phil Hughes was no angel. Like Kim Hughes, he was a prodigious talent, who was also at risk of squandering it, but he had the advantage of being loved for his personality. He seemed to have put his demons behind him, only for fate to strike with sickening finality.

While the two incidents are nowhere comparable in terms of tragedy, it is not only the same surname and the almost identical dates that invite some comparison.

Maybe at last we’ve got the message that sportsman are real people, who suffer pain and disaster like the rest of us, and who deserve sympathy not derision when they show emotions. And maybe we’ve learnt that sport is not so important after all. And maybe that it’s OK for men to cry.

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

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