Timeless Test: Playing In The Shadow
The first Test of the 2014-15 Border-Gavaskar Trophy series was no ordinary game of cricket, dominated as it was by unfamiliar emotions, and a familiar spirit: Phillip Hughes.
In the wake of a real cricket tragedy, the 2014 Adelaide Test produced a classic contest.
Phillip Hughes’ death united us in that way any disaster does. It was a reminder that catastrophe doesn’t discriminate. More than just a moment to grieve, or to contemplate our mortality, it stirred up a slurry at the bottom of our daily fears and anxieties. Mired in the stuff, we stopped in our tracks. We had no choice. The workaday denial of death enables us to keep going even as it hamstrings us with neurosis.
Other, distant, cultures threw their ingredients into one pot with ours, and for a short time we realised, respectfully, humbly, that we all belonged there together.
For the Aussie cricketers, it was all so intense, it was numbing. It wasn’t just that they lost a teammate – a teammate who, according to chief selector Rod Marsh the day before the awful incident, was a special player on the verge of re-joining them. Four of the players selected for Australia arrived at Hughes’ side that abysmal moment when he pitched forward in terrible, ominous delayed reaction to a blow to the neck.
Not since boxing was a headline sport and the popular, skilful and ill Archie Kemp died in the ring in 1949 had a sporting death in Australia brought such dread, stewing silence. The media did its best to mediate, but their movement through the silent multitude had something of the fugue state about it.
Then the bats appeared, and the laurels, in the streets, outside houses and shops, here and in other far-flung nations, from Tibet to Trinidad. The spectre was there when strangers met, sparking xenos of emotional connection. Phil Hughes had achieved an amazing thing. Brendon McCullum expressed well how cricketers from other nations felt: “After Phil’s death, we didn’t really care about the result. The fact that nothing we could or couldn’t do on the field really mattered … had an amazingly liberating effect.”
For cricket, time stopped. In Sharjah, day two of the Third Test between Pakistan and New Zealand – the match McCullum was referring to – was abandoned. India’s tour match against the Australian XI was cancelled. The first Test in Brisbane was postponed. Sydney grade cricket was suspended. Cricket Australia had no way to proceed, except carefully and reverentially. The word “appropriate” featured in every public announcement, and they saw it as their first duty to support the Hughes family.
The Indian team itself felt only empathy and sorrow. There was syncretism in the way they consoled the Australians, referring to heaven, eternity and the soul. Two nations that normally express with sharp differences everything they do came together under the hegemony that death institutes. It was a strange way to resume an enmity that, arguably, has been the most acrimonious of modern times. But sport is life going on.
The blend of emotional fuels for the eventual first Test in Adelaide was highly unusual: grief, wistful ellipsism, loss, anger, longing and fear. Eternal questions, feelings that we can never really see where we’re going. Whimsical, dormant, curious emotions, or emotional curios, emotions without names, species of sentiment we thought were all but extinct. Feelings that only get dusted off now and again, if at all. When it seemed all the fellow-feeling broke down on day four, there was even something different about that – almost a grasping for normality. Emotion ruled. Such an environment was no place for heretics of reason; the sceptical, arch and ironic would be lynched and it would be fully justifiable.
It made the first Test of the BorderGavaskar Trophy series compulsory viewing even for the non-cricket watcher. There were denouements to savour, resolves to be satisfied, utterly unanticipated things.
The first day of Australia’s first domestic Test of the season, traditionally held in Brisbane, normally contains the formative power of the first note in a symphony. Beginning in Adelaide felt, on this occasion, right. Adelaide was among other things a city of churches. The lifeblood of this Test was an incessant flow of extraordinary performances. In the shadow of a death, Test cricket affirmed life.
It began with David Warner, seemingly fuelled by rage against the dying of Phil Hughes’ light. If the circuit of grieving
Bob Simpson hadn't played a Test for a decade when he was called to put on the pads again for a WSC-ravaged Aussie side.