Australia is a mighty long way from England. Yet the cricketing competition these two countries contest is cherished across the oceans, from rainy Manchester, in the north of my country, to sun-baked Perth, in the south-western tip of theirs. The “Ashes” trophy the two sides battle over dates back to 1882, when in a moment of mocking triumphalism Australian victors presented to English losers an urn containing the burnt remains of a bail, “In affectionate remembrance of English cricket… deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends.”
Needless to say, the match-up of nations thrived ever since, featuring many of the greatest players the game has ever known and, of course, its greatest, Don Bradman, who last waved his bat in anger back in 1948.
For most of my 33 years, England have been a distant second best. But not for one second did such a trifling matter stop me from watching. At the end of especially thrilling games I would give my grandmother a call – or she we would call me – to compare notes, the both of us eager to bolster the brush stroke of memory. Sometimes she would tell me about the peak, carefree years of her favorite player, David Gower, which were just before my time. He, apparently, would bring to the game a youthful dash and spirit that few others could ever hope to match – replacing the exertions of lesser players with: more nimble feet, a lighter bat, and an untroubled mind.
My grandmother died in 2004. I miss those phone calls, and still wish I could make them. In the summer of 2005, in particular, we would have spoken often: England finally winning the Ashes again for the first time in 18 years, at the end of a spellbinding series. Hard to believe that will be ten summer’s ago in the blink of an eye.
The Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes died earlier today, at the awfully young age of 25 – the freak result of a blow to the head and neck, while batting two day’s ago. You can’t escape the feeling right now that cricket-lovers of all stripes and nations are similarly shocked and sad. You were one hell of a player, kid, and we’ll miss you.
Hughes never played all that well against England, but he surely would have eventually. His was an extraordinary talent: exuberant, adventurous, and rare. He could do for real what the rest of us only do in our dreams. We loft our imaginary bats, at imaginary crowds, after scoring fine, imaginary centuries. And our feet only dance imaginary dances down the wicket, and meet undelivered balls, in uncontested matches. For far too brief a time, Hughes, however, swatted away the best opposition bowlers like so many troublesome flies. How we all wish he could do so again.
There are no easy games between England and Australia – and there’s never any doubting the fierce will to win of both sides. But that reliable resolve only partly obscures a greater truth: the gap between winning and losing is bridged by a shared love of the game. Of spending our summer’s together, gripped collectively by the whereabouts of 13 players and one shiny red ball.
And if only today, let me whisper this: it’s one of crickets many great strengths that your team winning is never really all that big of a deal. In most other sports your team playing badly makes for a less compelling spectacle; in cricket, the reverse is often true. David Gower wound up on a lot of losing teams. No matter, he was a transfixing presence either way – the kind of player you don’t forget.
Phillip Hughes, too, would have transfixed us all – across the oceans – for many more years to come. He was one hell of a player. And we’ll miss him.