Phil Hughes
Phil Hughes
Photo Credit: The Cricketer/Twitter

On November 25th, 2014, I was at work. It was a normal, drab day in Mumbai. I had gotten ready, taken a bus to Ramabhai Nagar, made my way to Ghatkopar station via share auto and taken the metro to J.B. Nagar/Chakala for my internship at a law firm. There was nothing special about it. It was a typical, regular day.

Until it wasn’t.

Midway through the day, reports start filtering in, friends start messaging on WhatsApp. Something had happened. Something disastrous. I checked, and from that moment on, for the three horrifying days that followed, I did nothing but feverishly refresh cricinfo with shaking hands and tears blurring my vision, hoping and praying that all would turn out well.

I had never known Phil Hughes personally, I had never met him, I’d never even heard him speak. But the news of his injury hit me like a train. When he died on the 27th of November, without having regained consciousness after his injury, I wept. It felt like my heart had been ripped out of me, like I’d lost someone close to me. And in some ways, Hughes was close to me.

He wasn’t the most well-known cricketer in the world, more one who was just about staying afloat at the international level. But for years, I had adored the man. He was far and away my favourite cricketer in the world, the best batsman in the world in my eyes. It wasn’t that his technique was eye-catching, or that he was an entertainer on the pitch. Neither of those was the case with him. He had an oddly crabby batting stance, with shades of Katich and Chanderpaul to it, and his technique was more efficient than beautiful. He was also quiet on the field, quick to smile, but never one to anger at slights or resort to sledging.

No, what endeared him to me was his fight. He only played 52 Internationals for Australia, split almost evenly between Tests and ODIs, and posted mediocre numbers in them - averaging 32 in Tests and 36 in ODIs - but that was less his failing than that of the Australian selectors. Hughes was often the fall guy for the selectors in a volatile period for Australian cricket.

He was the convenient scapegoat for the then-chairman of the selection panel, John Inverarity. But where others would have lost hope, or form, or both, after being dropped so often, Phil Hughes clawed back. If you drop me, I will make you regret it, he seemed to say. And he let his bat do the talking. His first-class record tells the tale well enough on its own - 9023 runs with 26 centuries at the age of 25.

I do not want Phil Hughes’s legacy to be his death and the helmet change that it brought, I do not want his death to be the most important part of his life. So instead, on the fifth anniversary of his death, I want to remember the fight he put up in the face of a stubbornly adverse selection committee - one that disregarded his ability and his stats for reasons only they know.

This was 2013, before Steve Smith became the godly batsman he is today, and during a period when Australia floundered in the wake of Ponting’s world-beaters retiring. So, the minute Hughes failed to score, he was axed by an impatient selection committee, or he was pushed around the batting order to make space for another player that they wanted to try out (usually one of the astonishingly mediocre pair of Alex Doolan or Shaun Marsh).

“I don’t mind where I bat but when you do bat one to six, mentally it can be frustrating. At times it can be tough to get your head around the different positions but you’ve just got to get on with it and that’s the bottom line.” Hughes was quoted as saying in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2013.

This was said during a disappointing Ashes series for Australia, where the only highlight was Ashton Agar making 98 on debut, with Hughes supporting him from the other end with a calm 81* as the pair added a world-record 163 for the last wicket. Hughes was dropped after the second Test.

Hughes wasn’t the only one frustrated with his merry-go-round role in the side, as Allan Border said at the time,

“I have a very soft spot for young (Phil) Hughes and I think he’s been badly treated in the past ... maybe they’re just making him really earn his stripes again this time.

“He’s just so far in front of any other contender it’s not funny, so I’m hoping they’ll take Hughes on the plane (to South Africa).”

And every time Hughes was dropped, he responded by piling on the runs in domestic cricket. As I said above, by the age of 25, he had scored over 9000 first-class runs, complete with 26 centuries and 46 half-centuries, in 114 games.

He was the youngest batsman to score centuries in both innings of a Test (2009 South Africa), and the only Australian batsman to score a hundred on ODI debut. He was the fourth-youngest Australian to reach 1000 Test runs, behind only Sir Donald Bradman, Neil Harvey and Doug Walters. And a few months before his passing, he had become the first Australian to score a double-century in a List-A (50 over) match. The talent was always there, and always visible - to everyone but John Inverarity and the selectors.

Just imagine, this was the period in time when today’s big four were being formed. Kohli, Smith, Williamson, and Root were in the formative stages of their careers, and what they benefited from most was consistency. Their teams and their selectors believed in them, and allowed them to grow. Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh had been allowed to fail and learn at the highest level. They were afforded uninterrupted runs in their sides - at one position in the batting order. Hughes was never given that privilege, despite having a better first-class record than any of his peers to that point. He was of an age with them, and just as precociously talented, but was never trusted, for whatever reason.

After that Ashes dumping, Hughes was told by the selectors to go score runs. Hughes didn’t need to be told that - scoring runs was what he did. He single-handedly lead South Australia to the top of the Sheffield Shield table for 2013 with 549 runs at an average of 61, including a double-hundred and match-winning hundreds at the MCG and the SCG.

For anyone else, this would have bought them a spot in the national team and more, but for Hughes, it was somehow indicative of a lack of ability. To reward his performance, Australia’s selectors dumped him from the ODI team, and then excluded him from a 15 man roster for a tour of South Africa - his favourite opponents. He was never picked for a Test again. The List-A 202*, and a Sheffield Shield 243* weren’t enough for him to break into the Team.

His last match, where he was unbeaten on 63 when it happened, would likely have seen him finally return to the Test side - one-and-a-half years after he was dumped. He was playing that Shield game for the chance to make it into the team for the Test series against India that began the following week. He was a favourite to make it. He should already have made it. And this time, there would be no further drops, I believed. He’d finally be appreciated by his selectors, and he’d cement his status as one of the best players in the world.

And just like that, with one unfortunately placed bouncer, all of that promise came crashing down. And cricket would never know the talent they’d lost. All that would remain were the stats and the tragedy of his passing - averaged 32 in Tests and 36 in ODIs. Phillip Hughes was a mediocre young batsman, who impacted cricket more with his death than with the bat. Gone would be the batsman who had won over fans in Australia, along with every player he met, and who had been endorsed by some of Australia’s legends. Gone would be the batsman I had watched with awe, ever since the Champions League in 2009, in which he scored 202 runs as his NSW Blues took home the title.

In a parallel world, Hughes would be thriving in today’s Australia. With him, they wouldn’t have slumped following the suspensions of Warner and Smith. With his mentor Justin Langer as coach, and with Trevor Hohns back as selector - he gave Ponting a run of 42 uninterrupted Test innings when he was starting out - Hughes would have been firmly embedded in the Australian team, and well on his way to becoming a cricketing legend.

Instead, we’re left lamenting his loss, one that has left the cricketing world a much poorer place. There is a gaping hole left that this New South Wales farmboy should have occupied in the cricketing pantheon, gracing all of us with his infectious smile and his endlessly positive attitude.

Phillip Hughes lived as a fighter, he batted with graft and grit more than with etiquette, and he fought for every single run that he scored. He had been raised to push through adversity, and he breathed that tenet in everything he did. He failed on Test debut. He responded with centuries in each innings of his second Test - against Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn at their best. He was dropped from Australia’s team thrice, he responded each time by scoring more and more runs in first-class cricket, until the selectors could not conceivably keep ignoring him. Given time, he would have fought his way to the very top of world cricket.

That is what I want Phil Hughes to be remembered for, and that is what I want his legacy to be. I want him to be a beacon for young cricketers coming through their domestic leagues - for the Sanju Samsons or the Dom Sibleys of the world. I want them to look at Hughes as a symbol of what they should be. To emulate his fight, to do everything in their power to force their selection. He lived for that fight, and that is what he should be remembered for. Follow that path, and greatness will follow.

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