It is the picture of a grinning Phil Hughes handing a few bottles of soft drink to the occupants of the parched press benches in Cape Town, back in March, which distils why the grief felt by his death has been so sharp and overwhelming for so many.
The thought of rehydrating journalists would be remarkable in any sportsman these days but this is the one whose batting technique they had subjected, with justification, to relentless scrutiny. Hughes kept putting that aside, though, because he always just wanted to immerse himself in cricket. The writers who encountered him at Middlesex will tell you they were most struck by how he would seize any chance to pass the time in conversation about county cricket, enthused by his presence in it, as he prepared to go out and bat in front of a handful of people.
He was an everyman – “more curious about those around him than in telling his own story,” as the Australian cricket writer Joe Aston, who got to know him on that South African tour, put it in a beautiful piece, charting the rise of the man from a cattle and banana farming family in Macksville, New South Wales, who knew more about the respective merits of bovine breeds than nearly anyone outside the Royal Show.
But it is the fallibility and vulnerability which went with all that which made him one of us. He journeyed from an imperious Test performance in Durban – his second at that level, when he became the youngest Test batsman to score a century in both innings – to the bleak exploitation of a weakness, in a sport which seizes on them more unsparingly than ever.
It was at Cardiff, in the first Test of the 2009 Ashes summer, that it was first played upon by Andrew Flintoff, who dropped the ball in short of a length, again and again, cramping Hughes up, attacking his ribs. “Suddenly our rising star looked terribly mortal,” Ricky Ponting says of that moment in his autobiography: words which carry as much of a chill in retrospect as his description of the gorgeous Durban blossoming for Hughes as “the game of his life”.
Viewed from these shores, the narrative of Australian sportsmen is one of infallibility. But the fine details of the young man’s failure could have been yours or mine. Hughes wanted to get to grips with England early that Ashes summer. So he arrived before the others, got stuck in at Middlesex, made a string of hundreds – and revealed his strengths and weaknesses to England captain and Middlesex team-mate Andrew Strauss in the process. Did he show too much to Strauss? Ponting has always thought so. The short balls to his body started flying in from Steve Harmison in the early tour match at Worcester.
Ponting tried working on a pull shot with him, though the problem stuck. He moved heaven and earth to wear the baggy green again and rediscover what he had found that time in South Africa. Hughes transferred to South Australia, played for three English counties, scored one further Test century – Colombo in 2011 – and was providing hints that the promise would be fulfilled when he died in the processing of demonstrating that he would be damned if he’d let short bowling beat him.
Amid the euphoria of the Durban victory, Ponting sidled up to the young batsman and whispered: “Never forget how good this feels.” Hughes never did. And that is the tragedy Australia feels.
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