Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Phillip Hughes: Cricketers' Grief

It being summer I've been watching copious amounts of cricket and avoiding anything too intellectual or work-related.  As an additional aid to this vegetative process, I've been reading some of the cricket memoirs that have been released over the past few months.  There is Michael Clarke's My Story, Chris Rogers' Bucking the Trend and Mitchell Johnson's Resilient.

I find the thought processes of elite athletes fascinating.  To succeed at their sport, they have to be really focused - not just when they are performing at the elite level, but on the way up.  They have to make sacrifices, as do those around them - their parents, siblings, partners and children.  They have to do this amidst a huge amount of uncertainty.  They might not make the grade.  An injury or an illness can end their career at a single stroke.  Their best may not be quite good enough.

These three men travelled quite different pathways to the top.  Michael Clarke was perhaps the most focused and single-minded.  From an early age he was obsessed with cricket to the exclusion of all else.  His Dad ran an indoor sports centre and he spent every moment he could hitting balls and bowling with whoever would have him.  He was also a golden boy of NSW cricket, given express passage through the junior representative and academy system and all the way to the Australian team, where he made his debut at 23.  He seemed destined for cricket greatness and to a large extent he achieved it.

Chris Rogers' career was a less turbo-charged version of the same pathway.  He was also focused on cricket from an early age and his Dad also ran a sports facility - he was General Manager of Perth's WACA ground.  But he wasn't given the same smooth ride as Clarke.  He was turned down for an academy place and had to work his way through Perth grade cricket and English league cricket before finally establishing himself in the West Australian team and in English country cricket.  Despite making mountains of runs, he was granted only a single Test at the age of 30 and then had to wait another five years for a second crack and a short but successful stint at the top.

Mitchell Johnson's pathway was the outlier in this trio.  It is rare for Cricket Australia's talent scouts to get their first sight of a promising player at age 17 - they have almost always played junior representative competitions and put their names in lights.  Instead, Johnson spent his early years dreaming of winning Wimbledon.  When he gave up his tennis dreams in his mid-teens he started playing club cricket for a bit of fun.  His family were so poor that they couldn't pay for cricket gear or coaching.  Yet the older heads at the Wanderers club in Townsville must have had some idea of how good he was, because they rounded up the money to send him to a fast bowling clinic in Brisbane run by Dennis Lillee.  It took only three deliveries for Lillee to call his old mate Rod Marsh at the Australian Cricket Academy and talk him into making room for the young man.  He arrived with a collection of heavy metal T-shirts but no cricket shoes.  He was soon playing Australian Under 19s and being fast tracked into the Queensland and Australian teams.

Of course it was hard work.  Clarke had to deal with his bad back and a knack for falling out with team-mates.  Rogers had to deal with short-sightedness, colour-blindness and the burden of being more intelligent than the average cricketer.  Johnson had to deal with chronic stress fractures early in his career, and a loss of form and confidence mid-career.  All their families had to put up with them being away more often than they were home - Clarke and Johnson had tolerant, long suffering partners while Rogers remained single.  Yet all of them embraced it - after all, what else would they rather be doing?  Clarke dropped out of school at 16.  Johnson finished Year 12 without distinction and was toying with a military career.  Rogers had a go at university but dropped out, although he did complete a journalism degree later on.  Travelling the world being paid (quite handsomely, in Clarke's and Johnson's case) for playing your favourite game  beats just about anything else.

There is a lot of diversity in these stories but the most intense point of each is the same - the death of Phillip Hughes. Young Australian batsman Hughes died on 27 November 2014 of a massive brain haemorrhage after being struck in the neck by a cricket ball.  By this time, Hughes had been in and out of the Australian team for a couple of years and had played State cricket for NSW and South Australia.  By all accounts he was a very popular team-mate, a friendly, easy-going young man who got on with everyone and didn't have any enemies - unusual in the tense, competitive world of elite sport.

Of course everyone was shocked by his death.  Australian, NSW and South Australian players gathered at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the days after his accident, supporting one another and trying to come to terms with what had happened.  A few days later they travelled to his home town of Macksville in rural NSW for his funeral.  His death was a public event, sparking a viral tribute in which cricket lovers around the country put cricket bats on public display in his honour.

But when someone dies, other lives don't stop.  There was a packed international schedule of matches to be played and broadcasting contracts to be honoured - four Tests against India, a 50-over World Cup jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, a tour of the West Indies, an Ashes series in England, plus various bilateral one-day tournaments and T20 games, all packed in between December and August.  The most they got was a delay of a couple of weeks on the start of the first India test, and then they were back playing.

It was difficult for them to put their hearts into it.  Mitchell Johnson puts it best. love of the game was put into perspective before the start of the 2014-15 season.  Not many people loved cricket as much as Phillip Hughes did.  When he died - two days after being struck in the neck by a ball - it was hard to love it or play it the same way I had when he was alive.  That horrible tragedy changed many things.  I feel so awful for his family.  The impact his passing had on the rest of us is irrelevant by comparison but its there.  I was never the same bowler after Phillip died.

Johnson's problem was that Hughes was killed by a bouncer, a ball deliberately aimed at his head.  It was bowled by a moderately fast bowler called Sean Abbott.  Such balls are designed to intimidate the batsman and perhaps even bruise him but not, of course, to kill him.  Mitchell Johnson could bowl a good 10-15 km/h faster than Abbott and intimidation was his thing.  Batsmen knew that if they faced him, the ball would be flying around their ears.  Plenty had bruises to show for it.  South African captain Graeme Smith had his fingers broken twice.  In 2013-14 Johnson blasted Australia to an Ashes whitewash on the back of the most consistently hostile fast bowling seen in Australia since the heyday of Lillee and Thompson.

Yet now the game had changed.  It was one thing to have opponents jumping around and feeling sore.  It was another to think you could kill them. Off the field Johnson is a gentle introvert.  All of a sudden, every ball was a test of nerves.  He had to try and dismiss the thought of harm from his mind, go back to bowling the way that had made him successful.  Every time he hit someone on the helmet his heart missed a beat.  He played on to the end of 2015, but he never returned to the intimidatory heights of 2013-14.  Of course there were other factors at play - he was getting older, he was getting worn down by flat pitches, he had just become a dad - but he was also relieved to not have to walk that tightrope any more.

(Incidentally, if Mitchell Johnson felt this way, spare a thought for Sean Abbot!)

Rogers had the opposite problem.  He was an opening batsmen like Hughes, and every time he batted he was peppered with short balls.  He had, of course, been hit a few times.   Early in his career he lost several teeth after being hit in the jaw playing county cricket.  He had always felt confident in his ability to handle it, but now it started to worry him.  What if he went the same way as Hughes?

Right on cue, he started to get hit more often.  During the Indian series he was fielding at short leg and a full blooded pull shot cannoned into his helmet.  He spent time off the field with concussion.  Then on the tour of the West Indies he was hit again during net practice, and the concussion was worse - he missed both West Indies Tests as he recovered.  Back in the saddle for the Ashes in England he was hit again at Lords, and although he seemed fine at the time he had to go off later in the game when he saw the stadium wobble.

That was enough for him.  He played out the series, scoring plenty of runs along the way, but called it quits at the end.  No-one was surprised, and no-one tried to talk him out of it.

You will notice that both these stories are not about Hughes, they are about Johnson and Rogers.  They are not about grief, they are about anxiety. Neither Johnson nor Rogers was close to Hughes.  They had both shared Australian dressing rooms with him - Johnson more so that Rogers - and liked him, but they lived far apart, they were team-mates and colleagues, not close friends.  They had to put themselves back in their performance bubble as quickly as possible to do what was expected of them.  This meant shutting out the grief in the same way they shut out other distractions.  Shutting things out is what elite athletes do.

But grief cannot be simply shut out.  If it is denied entry by the front door it will climb in through a window, and this window is often anxiety and depression.  Their anxieties were not totally irrational but nor were they totally objective.  The chance of the freak accident that killed Hughes being repeated was very slim.  But when someone you know personally has been killed in just such an accident, probability means nothing - the anxiety is visceral, an echo of your grief.  You can never face the same task in the same way again.

Johnson and Rogers were not close to Hughes, but Clarke was.  He and Hughes bonded from the moment they met at NSW training.  Hughes shared Clarke's house for a while, they socialised together regularly in and out of the cricket season, they exchanged text messages constantly.  When Clarke referred to Hughes as his "little brother" he wasn't playing to the crowd.  This was how he really felt.

There was also a lot else going on for Clarke at this time.  While Johnson and Rogers were at high points in their careers, feeling secure and satisfied with where they stood, Clarke was struggling.  His performances were still good enough, but the degenerating disk in his spine was reaching breaking point.  Over the previous year he had begun to miss more cricket and his physio sessions got longer and more intensive.  There were days where he couldn't do up his own shoelaces.  In the lead-up to the scheduled opening Test of the 2014-15 summer he was struggling to be fit and doing battle with the team heirarchy, who insisted that he prove his fitness and then kept shifting the goalposts on how he needed to do so.  This was just the latest in a string of tensions over his fitness and his training regime.  Clarke felt under siege.  His response?  To tough it out, to plough ahead, to follow his own course doggedly and insistently.  He shut out the distractions.

Hughes' death fed into this siege mentality.  As Hughes was taken to hospital and placed on life support, Clarke rushed to be at his side.  He spent most of the next two days at the hospital, acting as go between for the Hughes family with the throngs of media and team-mates who hung around the hospital waiting for news.  Later, at the funeral back in Hughes' home town, he visited with the family again and delivered a moving eulogy for his "little brother".

After such a calamity, and Clarke's leadership in responding to it, it was impossible for the selectors to leave him out of the team for the rescheduled first Test, which unfolded as an extended tribute to Hughes.  Against their better judgement they allowed him to play.  He scored an emotional century but was clearly in pain throughout the game, and as often happens his back stiffness put strain elsewhere and he tore a hamstring while fielding.

The resulting enforced break from cricket could possibly have been a time for Clarke to step back and process his grief, and maybe re-evaluate where he was going.  Sadly, he was not yet ready to do this.  Instead, he threw himself into an intensive rehab process as only an obsessive, driven athlete can.  His aim was to lead his team to success in the World Cup and then lead them in the mid-year Ashes tour.

He achieved both - just.  He missed the start of the World Cup but was back in time for the important games, scored runs and led his team to victory.  It seemed like a vindication and he soldiered on, leading the team again in the West Indies and England.

However, by the time he got to the UK the adrenaline was running low.  He was in constant pain.  The tension within his team continued to grow and he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.  His technique deteriorated and he couldn't buy a run. The team lost the Ashes with calamitous batting collapses in two successive games.  He hated the modified helmet he was forced to wear after Hughes' death,  feeling trapped by it and unable to see properly through the restyled grille - a perfect metaphor for the dysfunctional bubble he had placed around himself to keep the grief at bay.  By the end of the series he had had enough and announced his retirement to everyone's huge relief, not least his increasingly concerned partner.  Finally, he was able to allow himself to grieve.

What these three men all had in common, of course, is that they were getting older.  Clarke's back could no longer stand the strain.  Rogers could feel his reflexes slowing.  Johnson felt increasingly apathetic at the thought of slogging through long days on flat pitches.  Johnson and Clarke were both becoming parents.  Father Time was breathing down their necks.

There is nothing like a death to make us aware of our own mortality, especially when the deceased is younger than us.  It is one thing that is guaranteed to change the way we see our lives.  We see a big hole, an empty chair where our friend used to be, and we think, "Who will be next?  Will it be me?  If I died tomorrow, would I be happy with my life?"  Priorities change.  Hitting a piece of cork and leather with a piece of wood can suddenly seem less meaningful than we previously thought.

I was reminded of Hughes again as I watched the most recent Sydney Test a couple of weeks ago.

David Warner, another man who was close to Hughes, was fielding close to the bat when Hughes was struck.  He was one of the first to realise that something was seriously wrong and he rushed to his side, signalling frantically for medical help and then riding beside him on the medicab as he was taken from the field, already comatose.

After Hughes' death a plaque was put up in his honour at the Sydney Cricket Ground, just beside the race the players walk along on their way out to bat.  Every time Warner goes past it he touches it with his hand and thinks of his friend.  This January he touched the plaque as usual and then set a new record by scoring 100 on the first morning of the match.  Grief doesn't go away, but we learn to live with it, it becomes part of our own personal growth and if we are healthy, it makes us better people.

Rest in peace, Phillip, and may your friends and family continue to be comforted.

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