Phil Hughes died doing what he loved: something so trivial as striking a leather ball with a wooden bat. Sport is a pointless activity; this very quality is its allure. It is also one of the most profound activities we can engage in.
Yet, it is not a matter of life and death. Until someone dies in action. And then, all our comfortable notions are shattered, our military metaphors come back to haunt us; sledging, corruption, chucking are rendered meaningless.
India promises to play positive cricket in Australia? Meaningless. Chennai Super Kings to be banned from the IPL? Meaningless. Players complaining of too much cricket? Meaningless. A back injury, a run out, a poor decision by the umpire — all meaningless.
Hughes would have turned 26 on Sunday. Sean Abbott who bowled the bouncer that hit him is only 22. They made their T20 international debuts together a month ago, against Pakistan. One can only imagine Abbott’s state of mind now.
It was a freak accident. Dr Timothy Steel, head of Neurosurgery at St. Vincent’s Hospital where Hughes was treated, said his death was a “one in a billion event”. Yet it draws attention to two elements — the technique of the batsman and the quality of protective gear.
Hughes’s technique has been described as “heterodox”. He was special, following a manual that only he could understand and profit from.
After the batsman became the youngest player to make two centuries in a Test match, Peter Roebuck wrote, “Hughes is a tough, pesky 20-year-old lefty from the sticks who bats and lives by his own lights.”
Not for him the leaning off drive or the casual swing to leg of the elegant left-hander. He loved to slice, loved to reach for the ball.
What he lacked in technique he made up in heart and common sense. He was mature enough to overcome the handicap of being known as the “next Bradman”, and mischievous enough to bring up a Test century with two sixes.
Former player Mike Selvey has suggested that the protection afforded to the modern player has made him lax on safety. The well-protected take bigger risks. The manufacturer of the helmet that Hughes was wearing has rushed to tell us that he was not using their latest offering. But it does not matter — fixing fault is merely an exercise in understanding an event that, frankly, is beyond comprehension.
Sport is a life-affirming activity, and to die in action goes against the natural order of things. Through the psychological membrane that separates sport from real life it is acceptable when situations from the former pass into the latter. When the US President Richard Nixon asked the moon-walking astronauts, “Did you get the results of the All-Stars game?” it seemed both natural and vital.
Sport can seep into life, but when the reverse happens it is frightening. When real life breaks through and enters a sporting activity bringing with it death, it is unfair. Real life has no business entering a purely artificial situation and jerking us awake to the potential for tragedy there. Death, be not proud.
(Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack)