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Fugel: Elegy for a batsman

On Nov. 25, 2014, Phillip Hughes took the field clad in the red, white and black of South Australia’s cricket team. On Nov. 25, 2014, Phillip Hughes, a player who had seen his share of ups and downs throughout his career, who had been dropped from Australia’s Test (the oldest and most traditional, five-day format of cricket) squad, who had been part of cricketing history in his fabled partnership with then-debutante Ashton Agar in the 2013 Ashes, faced off against New South Wales bowler Sean Abbott, the next great Australian hope. On Nov. 25, Phillip Hughes played his last ever cricket match. On Nov. 27, 2014, Phillip Hughes died.

Watching this Sunday’s Super Bowl, I was shocked by the vehemence of the insults that flew through the room as the game unfolded. “Kill him,” yelled one admittedly hammered Patriots fan as Russell Wilson dropped back to pass. “Break his leg,” he yelled as Marshawn Lynch broke off another five-yard rush. While these sentiments are obviously not meant to be taken seriously, they bring to light a disturbing failing that we all very easily slip into as sports fans. At what point do we stop thinking of these players, who often give their health and always give up the prime of their athletic lives for our enjoyment, as humans and think of them instead as machines full of movable parts that can be forgotten about when it suits us? Moreover, have we stopped thinking about the fact that, behind the athleticism that contributes to their larger-than-life aura, these athletes who we despise, love, admire, mock and ignore are just as human – that is, as ephemeral – as we are?

When I was 17 and in high school, playing varsity cricket for a tiny private school that lost nearly every game it played, all I wanted to be was Phil Hughes. He had bad footwork; I had bad footwork. He couldn’t hit anything to his right; I couldn’t hit anything to my right. I also couldn’t hit anything to my left and was really only useful defensively, but that’s beside the point. I remember him breaking into the Australian team, shorter than I was and possibly the only professional athlete who looked like a strong wind would blow him away. He was the next great Australian hope, and as a German living in England, anyone who could crush the English was well worth the emotional investment. Sadly, Phil Hughes never did get the chance to live up to the promise that had once been bestowed upon him by the media. Phil Hughes’ story was tragically cut short on Nov. 25, 2014, by an event that has probably occurred more than a million times in cricket’s long annals.

First, a little bit of context. The bouncer is a type of ball (think a pitch in baseball) that is designed, if not to hit a batsman, then to give him a pretty big scare. Hitting the ground about 12 yards short of the batsman, the ball bounces up and arrows in towards the batsman’s chest area. And if the batsman’s good enough, he calmly shifts his weight back on to his back foot, angles the bat downwards and crushes the ball away. All this is happening while the ball is coming at the batsman at between 85-90 mph, in case the prospect was not terrifying enough. Batsmen have been hit, batsmen have ducked and weaved, batsmen have crushed the ball. And, once in a tragic, tragic, while, bowlers like Sean Abbott send down their bouncers and have them rear up and hit batsmen like Phil Hughes in the only place not protected by his helmet, just below his left ear, causing a tear in the vertebral artery that leads to a hemorrhage tragically cutting a life short and extinguishing a human life too early.

The reason sportsmen are so idealized is because they are like us, they exist in our world, they breathe our rarefied air. Too often we forget this in our effort to reduce them to a quality: the perma-tanned grin of Brady, Belichick’s mealy-mouthed mumblings, Richard Sherman’s big mouth. But they are fragile and, at times, feeble just like us. Phil Hughes’ case is a sad reminder that disaster can befall any one of us at any time. He didn’t survive because he was better than us. He died because he was one of us. May he rest in peace.

Dylan Fugel will spend the rest of the day replacing his Kobe Bryant posters with live broadcasting Mamba holograms. Contact Dylan at dfugel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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