Why has the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes prompted such widespread grief and dismay? Why did the news first of his injury, and then, yesterday afternoon, the reports that he had died, palpably shock so many of us?
This is not merely about the death of a public figure, the tragic loss of a young sportsman in his prime, killed doing his job. Far too many Australians die in their workplaces every year — nearly 200 last year. It is that it occurred on a cricket pitch. What is shocking is that what felled Hughes is an integral part of the sport: Sean Abbott’s delivery was just one of thousands of bouncers that have been and will be bowled over summer, and yet now that young man will for the rest of his life suffer the agony of being associated with a tragedy.
Part of cricket’s appeal is the role of fear in the contest, watching fast bowlers who use deliveries aimed at the body to induce fear, watching batsmen conquer that fear to score runs. To be a spectator at last year’s Ashes tests and watch Mitchell Johnson induce that fear in his opponents was to feel a visceral rush not too far removed from the days of the gladiators. And yet, surely, there was no real danger to life? Not with all that protective equipment and the helmets that have evolved so far since the 1970s?
Beneath the rush of seeing a fast bowler in his pomp is, we now see, a certain naivety about the risks batsmen really face.
The other reason for our shock is the way cricket, beyond any other sport, is embedded in Australian life. It is the sport we share as a nation, beyond any other. The return of cricket each summer marks the passage of another year. It forms the soundtrack to lazy summer days for so many of us — professional cricketers; the mums, dads, boys and girls who spend weekends playing, umpiring or scoring; and the millions who watch and listen to it. Cricket, with all its highs and lows, is part of the rhythm of Australian life.
That this treasured sport has claimed the life of a young man, even in the most improbable circumstances, seems almost unbelievable, like a bad dream from which we can’t awaken. And all the more so for Hughes’ family and friends, and his teammates and opponents. Vale.