The Changed Face of Cricket and the Wisdom of Insecurity

Steve Waugh’s young son cried when told the news of Phil Hughes’ passing. He was not alone. Many an expert and punter continue to explore why this has affected so many of us so deeply. Gideon Haigh described Hughes as the ‘best liked player going around’. We have certainly learned a lot more in recent days about his modesty, courage, understated humour and respect for others.

Like many, I was captivated by Hughes’ unforgettable debut series against South Africa. The way he notched consecutive hundreds with a brashness borne of enormous raw talent coupled with the sheer audacity of a young man getting a sense of how good he could be. And with that technique all his own.

We felt for him as that technique later exposed him, and he was repeatedly dropped from the Australian team. At times, this was in torturous circumstances as doubt crept in for possibly the first time. Seeing him repeatedly caught for not many, by the same slips fieldsman off the same bowler against New Zealand a few years back, was to see him at his most vulnerable with a bat in hand. Until fourteen days ago.

His very public passing, and of course the unlikely manner of it, has evoked strong waves of shock and empathy around the world. This was a young man, a precocious talent still finding his feet, with time yet to replicate at Test level the sheer weight of runs he managed in the first class arena. And it was a reminder to us all how fleeting this life can be.

We have heard that there has been one other death of this kind while playing cricket, it too from a relatively innocuous ball. Chloe Saltau reported in The Age that a couple of decades ago, in a suburban Melbourne nets session, a warm up ball sprung off some gravel on the pitch. The batsman collapsed much as Hughes did and died the following day. The media apparently did not pick it up.

So how do we play the game now? This question is also drawing in experts and punters alike.

The first Test was postponed, but is now upon us. It still seems so soon. Many remain in mourning. As Waleed Aly points out, this is uncharted territory as we move to resume the international season. We are yet to find our range again in the stands, let alone on the cricket field. When we do, I wonder if the Hughes legacy might inspire a shift in how we view safety and the spirit of the game more broadly.

We have sadly become all too aware of a peculiarly vulnerable part of our anatomy when faced with the sort of impact a cricket ball can have. So while the chances of being hit there may be low, the fact that a suburban ‘trundle’ can have a fatal impact is all the more disconcerting given the stakes are so very high.

Out of all this, the back of the neck may come to be seen as worthy of the sort of protection we give the face. Whatever is done, though we may find a better shield against the worst of harm, it can never be a shield against all harm.

This is the reality of life. We can’t escape it, but nor should we want to. As Alan Watts put it, there is wisdom in our insecurity. It engenders circumspection, understanding and the generosity of spirit we’ve witnessed these past weeks. Amidst the mourning, countless and often remarkable tributes have been offered around the world, from night vigils on sub-continental streets, to personal messages from some of Australia’s greatest rivals.

Malcolm Knox foresees the exaggerated aggression that has become Australian cricket’s hallmark inevitably returning in time. Is this what defines us? Does it need to be? There are plenty of examples of sport played hard at the highest levels without it. Think the spectacular era of international men’s tennis we are still witnessing, to name just one.

Tennis expects players to uphold a certain spirit, much the way cricket is said to. Yet this has not come at the expense of extraordinary contests between several of the all-time greats in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. The same can be said for eras past in both tennis and cricket, to enduring public acclaim.

Upholding this spirit without winning much can be pretty unpleasant. Winning without such spirit can be too. For now, the grief is thick. As it eases, could we build the return of our most intensely competitive instincts upon the rich spirit of respect triggered by Phil Hughes’ passing? At a time when sport and society generally could use more of it, perhaps that would be a fitting tribute to this best liked player.


About Anthony James

AJ is a 5th gen Australian living with his family by the ocean in the city of Perth, on traditional Noongar lands. He is host of The RegenNarration podcast, teaches and talks on regenerative development, plays music and writes a bit. His writing has found its way into The Conversation, World Economic Forum and elsewhere. But when he saw the Almanac, he remembered he wanted to be a sports writer.


  1. Michael Tanner says

    Nice reflections Aj. Hughes’ death has touched many of us much deeper than the sum of his and the games parts might be expected to. You are right, it is the time to reflect on how we play this game. And if cricket is a metaphor for the clashes of nation, ideal and class, (as I reckon it is) then seeing Hughes’ passing as more than the tragic loss of a sporting talent and loved man is part of us understanding what it means to be ‘fair’. I think we’ve probably all lamented the loss of the spirit of the game that seemed more present in the old days. Perhaps that is also part of the understanding we need to seek out. What is it about this magic game that moves us so much? What will Hughes’ legacy be? How will we remember to play ‘fair’ once the pressure of another long hot summer builds and the game rolls on?

  2. Thanks for that Michael. Good questions to be asking, I reckon. While we enjoy what looks to be a cracking game in the making.
    Have a great Summer,

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