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Kim Hughes’s tragic career saw him battle powerful forces against him within his own team

Kim Hughes's tragic career saw him battle powerful forces against him within his own team

The lack of bitterness in Kim Hughes was remarkable  © Getty Images

Kim Hughes, born January 26, 1954, was one of the most attractive stroke-players produced by Australia, but one who never managed to reach the heights he promised. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the tumultuous career of the man who would jump down the wicket to the fastest of bowlers to bring a smile on the face of the spectator.

In a team full of hardened men, who played the game with scary ruthlessness and earned the tag The Ugly Australians with deserving valour and pride, Kim Hughes arrived as a breath of fresh air.

Effervescent, lovable, and as charming in his game and as in his brilliant smile, with clean shaven boyish looks and golden locks on which sunbeams seemed to ripple, he perpetually looked the baby of the team – even when he led the side through the tumultuous late 70s and early 80. And he even went where no Australian captain had ever gone before, walking into the dressing room of the opponents and apologising after his pace bowler had unleashed a beamer.

He would dazzle onlookers with strokes beyond the capability and imagination of mere mortals, step out to hit fast men over the top and hook faster ones off his face. He could also throw his wicket away to rank long hops at the doorstep of glory, leaving spectators to hanker after what might have been – while he walked off with jaunty steps, not a care in his mind. To him cricket was to be enjoyed, played with a spirit of adventure.
And that is why he crashed headlong into three men hard as nails, with bared fangs doubling up as wisdom teeth, facial hair characterising the Aussie spirit of their times.

The challenges of a young captain

It was a clash of generations in more than one way. The ebb and flow of the times crisscrossed, and undercurrents reigned supreme.

Hughes scored a century on his First-Class debut for Western Australia, and followed it up with a hundred full of grace and poise in just his fourth Test.

As Kerry Packer came in to tear the game into two parallel circuits, he was handed the reins of captaincy before really establishing himself as a batsman. He led his country to victory in just his 11th Test match.
Hughes faced the main challenge of his cricket career after that, when the World Series ended its tale after a couple of thunderous years. The caretaker skipper of Australian cricket had to deal with the return of Kerry Packer’s men – especially the trio of Dennis Lillee, Rodney Marsh and Greg Chappell. His career, which ought to have been a tale of daring deeds of batsmanship, an ode to the exploits of a flashing blade, evolved into a gloomy saga of rancour, turmoil and conspiracy.

Captaincy, which never sat quite easy on him, continued to be taken away and reinstated time and again as Chappell made himself alternately available and unavailable. When Hughes led the side, his Western Australian team mates, Lillee and Marsh hovered on the edge of mutiny. Lillee was convinced that Marsh ought to be the captain. Marsh shared his conviction. For a season, Hughes played under Marsh in the State side while acting as the deputy of Chappell for Australia. And when the selectors quite logically decided to hand over the State captaincy to Hughes, both Lillee and Marsh refused to be the deputy.

It was more than the quest for honour. The sombre men and the golden boy differed in their views on cricket.

A tale of two attitudes

There are amiable – if slightly unedifying –  tales of Kim Hughes fooling around as the 12th man, playing innocent pranks in the dressing room, even urinating on his teammates in the shower.

There are not so amiable tales about Dennis Lillee bowling bouncer after bouncer at Hughes in the nets, each more lethal than the next, and later apologising to himself for not knocking the batsman’s head off. About Chappell ignoring Hughes for Test after Test in his debut series, until the Ashes was lost. About Marsh refusing to help him with suggestions during the darkest hour of his captaincy, dismissing the suggestions with a curt, “Let him stew in it.” About newcomers in the team openly aghast at the lack of cooperation witnessed from the veteran Australian cricketers. About opposition players wondering how much support the young Australian skipper enjoyed in the team.

The Australians were just not used to playing cricket the Kim Hughes way. The three musketeers did not even think that Hughes was good enough to join the Packer Circus, let alone lead their proud nation.
Yet, it was not that Hughes did not prove himself on the field.

In the Centenary Test at Lord’s, he hit 117 and 84 – runs that injected all the romance associated with the golden ages of cricket into an otherwise drab, dry yawn of a match. He batted on all five days and hit a six on each of them. For those five magical days, not one bowler was too fast to step out and clout to the top tier of the Grand Stand, no ball was wide enough to be left alone without being subjected to the flashiest of square cuts. It was the type of spirit that made Len Pascoe call Hughes The Fred Astaire of batting.

And in the Boxing Day Test of 1981, Hughes hooked and pulled bouncers searing into his face with effortless élan and compiled an incredible perfect100 as no one else managed more than 21. This was an innings played against the meanest pace quartet of all, on a pitch that made the ball skid, take off and zoom across.

Don Bradman, certainly. Stan McCabe, maybe. Those three innings together were beyond the dreams of any other Australian batsman in history. Yet, alongside these gems were long stretches of mediocrity, of luckless and run-less periods, when his propensity to step out to the fastest bowlers to bring a smile on the face of the spectators did not go down well with the trinity who defined the path of Australian cricket.

Through that miraculous Ashes series in England, 1981, when Ian Botham brought off miracle after miracle, captain Hughes was severely criticised for getting out attempting irresponsible hook shots. After that, joining the ranks of the three big names in Australian cricket, Ian Chappell hounded his steps with the microphone, taking interviews and blasting his batting and his moves in his columns and on air. Hughes appealed to the cricket board to stop the elder Chappell from speaking to him, but his entreaties fell on deaf ears. Geoff Lawson believes that Marsh and Lillee spent every waking hour undermining Hughes. All these heavyweights made life miserable for Hughes. His captaincy grew confused on difficult tours, and in West Indies Rodney Hogg threw a punch at him when an altercation arose about fielding positions. All this led to the day when he bade a tearful farewell to captaincy at Brisbane.

It led Bill Lawry to remark, “The demise of Kim Hughes in Brisbane in a manner equal to be being dragged down like a dingo in the pack and devoured by your own, within and without, was a disgrace.”

Soon after giving up captaincy and following it up with a couple of low scores, Hughes joined a rebel tour to South Africa and never played for Australia again.

Kim Hughes's tragic career saw him battle powerful forces against him within his own team

Rod Marsh, along with the Dennis Lillee and Greg Chappell, greatly undermined captain Kim Hughes (in the foreground) as Australian captain © Getty Images

The affliction of joy

However, in spite of all he suffered because of the three big men, the lack of bitterness in Hughes was remarkable.

In the farewell Test match of the Big Three, when Greg Chappell caught Mudassar Nazar to equal Colin Cowdrey’s world record of 120 catches, Hughes hugged him tight from the side, with his delighted fingers beating a happy drumbeat on the rib cage.

When Chappell turned and scampered a third overthrow to go past Don Bradman’s aggregate of 6996 runs, Hughes was at the other end. He switched course, veered diagonally at Chappell and fisted the air as they crossed. Chappell looked merely relieved, sweaty and tired, as if he had stepped out of a mine shaft. Hughes looked on seventh heaven as he clapped with his bat from the other end.

When Lillee and Chappell churlishly walked out to field long after everyone else on their last Test match morning, Hughes arranged his troops in two rows to applaud them in a guard of honour.

He did mention to Playboy, “If I’ve got teammates like that, I wonder what I’d do for enemies.” But, Hughes was not capable of holding a grudge for long.

He is now great friends with both Lillee and Marsh. And very recently, when contacted by Christian Ryan, the author of Golden Boy – the only biography of Hughes, Greg Chappell went on record saying “I don’t say this about a lot of blokes, but I love Kim Hughes. I admire what he’s been through because my life’s been very easy compared with Kim Hughes’s life, and I think most of us could say that.”

That was how Hughes was. A boy from the Australian bushes who never held a grudge in his heart. He was born to entertain and do it through some delightful cricket which made him happy and brought smiles to the faces of the onlookers. He was born for cricket, but maybe not in the Australian way. According to biographer Christian Ryan: “Cricket’s values, its traditions, ran through him. He was born to cricket. He belonged in cricket. But belonging in cricket, which is a culture, is different from belonging in the Australian cricket team, which is more like a club.”

The talent and attractiveness of his batting lie buried under the mediocre average of 37.41, encompassing 4415 runs in 70 Tests that saw him score nine hundreds. Yet, from his batting to his smile, the spring in his step and the glint in his eye even in phases of immense pressure, mark him out as someone distinct, someone special.

He played for the smiles and happiness, runs and wickets were by products. Not the other way around

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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