Phillip Hughes was the youngest man to score two tons in a Test match, he was destined for bigger things © Getty Images
Phillip Hughes was the youngest man to score two tons in a Test match — he was destined for bigger things © Getty Images

Phillip Hughes, born November 30, 1988, was an exciting batsman who dazzled the cricket world with his talent. The youngest man to score two tons in a Test, he also became the first Australian to score a One-Day International (ODI) century on debut and the first Aussie to score a List A double ton as well. Hughes seemed destined for bigger things, but fate had other plans. Hughes tragically passed away three days before his 26th birthday as a bouncer hit him on the back of the head while he was batting. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks back at the career of the much-loved left-hander.

It was a sunny day in Durban in March 2009. A precociously talented 20-year-old, playing only his second Test, took on the might of the Dale Steyn-led Protean pace attack. They pitched it short, trying to unsettle the youngster. He responded by cutting with disdain, and batted with a measure of both exuberance and caution. Tipped to be the next big thing in Australian cricket, he had introduced himself to Test cricket with a blob and 75 in the first Test in Johannesburg. This time, he wanted to make it count. On 93, he danced down the track to Paul Harris and lofted him straight for six.

On 99, one would have expected him to push it around and quietly take a single. Not this boy! He smashed the next ball over mid-wicket, and as it soared into the stands, he leapt in the air to celebrate his milestone. Phillip Joel Hughes had just announced his arrival to the cricket world. There was that expression of unbridled joy as he raised his bat to a joyful dressing room. Smiling ear to ear, this young boy felt on top of the world. That should be the picture to remember Hughes by.

Five years on, Hughes’ life ended in a freak accident during a Sheffield Shield game. Shaping to pull a short ball, Hughes somehow miscalculated and played the shot too early. The ball hit him on the back of his head. He was immediately on his knees before collapsing face-first to the ground. That was the last time Hughes was on a cricket ground. Rather than picturing that painful sight, remember the boy who celebrated scoring two tons in a Test at 20; remember the lad who hit a century on ODI debut; remember the man who smashed Australia’s first List A double-hundred.

Early days

Born in a small town called Macksville in New South Wales (NSW), Hughes was the second son of a banana farmer, Greg, and his wife Virginia. As a young boy, Hughes revelled in the countryside and built an unshakable bond with his farm. He studied at the Macksville High School and was drawn to cricket at a young age. As a young boy, he used to face his father Greg in the backyard. Later, Greg managed to get a bowling machine and the routine continued as the young Hughes played around 120 balls every day.

Phillip Hughes' trademark off-side play was possibly the result of him being forced to play on the off-side as a child © Getty Images
Phillip Hughes’ trademark off-side play was possibly the result of him being forced to play on the off-side as a child © Getty Images

Hughes indulged in games in the backyard with his friends. Since they could not hit on the leg-side, he could only go for the other. In doing so, Hughes unknowingly developed a penchant for playing the cut shot — which was to be his own in the years ahead. In a chat with The Telegraph, many friends said that it was almost impossible to get him out. That sentiment maintained even when a 12-year-old Hughes made his senior club debut for the Macksville RSL Cricket Club. The path towards the Baggy Green had taken shape in a small town in the countryside.

To follow his dream of representing Australia at the highest level, Hughes left home at the age of 16. The big city, Sydney, was to be his new home and the land of his dreams. Though he left the countryside behind, his heart was firmly rooted to his hometown and its people. For the 2,500-odd people, he was to become their hero.

The promising youngster

Having moved to Sydney, Hughes sought the guidance of the well-known coach Neil D’Costa, who is also Michael Clarke’s mentor. Hughes was coached by D’Costa during his time in Western Suburbs. In early 2006, he was picked to play for the NSW Under-17s, his first brush with representative cricket. He hit 51 in his first game for the NSW under-17s and scored 4 fifties in 6 matches. That helped him graduate to the under-19 level for the next season.

Playing for the NSW Under-19s in December 2006, Hughes hit 2 fifties and a century in 7 matches. The innings of 167 came against Western Australia under-19s, a team that featured his future teammates Nathan Coulter-Nile and Mitchell Marsh. In April 2007, he was selected for the Australia under-19 side to play Pakistan in an ODI series. Hughes smashed 101 in his first two games to kick start his under-19 career. He finished the last 3 games with 48*, 63 and 74. What’s more, his runs did not come against a pedestrian attack; Mohammad Aamer and Junaid Khan, two future Pakistan internationals, were a part of the bowling attack in that season.

Impressed with those performances, the 18-year-old Hughes was then blooded in the Australian Centre of Excellence side to play the Emerging Players’ trophy. A month later, he was on the flight to India to play in the Buchi Babu tournament. It wasn’t the easiest outing, but he ended the tour with 107 against Tamil Nadu. The first tour outside Australia held him in good stead, but there was work to be done at home.

That summer, Hughes was played for the New South Wales Second XI and was also selected for the Cricket Australia XI to play the touring Sri Lankans. Against the international quality attack featuring Muttiah Muralitharan, Hughes wasn’t overawed and scored 49. Following that up, was a performance of 51 and 137 for the New South Wales Second XIs. A senior debut was in the offing.

The young Shield cricketer

Over the years, numerous Australia under-19 cricketers have fallen by the wayside. It was a reflection of the high standards of the Sheffield Shield and the gulf between it and age-group cricket. Only someone as talented as Hughes could break into a State side at the age of 18. All those performances for Australia under-19s and the representative side had paid dividends as Hughes was picked for New South Wales in November 2007. He was to become the youngest player since Michael Clarke to represent them in Shield cricket. At that young age, it is not only an honour but a burden, for with it comes the pressure of expectations.

But as described by some of his teammates and friends, Hughes was one who did not fear the bigger platform. In fact, he loved it and was eager to thrive to showcase his talent. Making his First-Class debut against Tasmania on November 20, Hughes opened the batting with Ed Cowan. Showing great temperament, he scored 51 off 119 balls and constructed a solid 112-run stand with Peter Forrest for the second wicket. It set the platform for a huge New South Wales victory. Two days short of his 19th birthday, he also made his List A debut and marked the occasion with an innings of 68.

That season was proof of Hughes’ temperament and talent. The Australian selectors kept picking him for a few assignments against the touring sides that summer even as he cemented his spot in the New South Wales line-up. In the big final in March 2008, Hughes smashed his maiden First-Class ton and became the youngest to score a century in a Shield final. New South Wales resumed their second essay 65 runs ahead. Hughes hit a calm 116 to put his team on course to a triumph. His first season was a successful one, with 559 runs in 7 matches at 62.11 with a ton and 6 fifties. By the end of his first season, he had not only faced the best in Australia, but had also taken on two international quality attacks. Plus, he had also played for Australia in the ICC under-19 World Cup in Malaysia.

International call-up and early days at the highest level

Hughes was on the selectors’ radar since 2007 and the following year, they picked him for the Australia A side which toured India. Australia were still the world-beating unit, and normally picked Shield veterans for the Baggy Green. Rarely had a youngster gone on to represent his side following a couple of seasons. Hughes was destined to break conventions. Matthew Hayden’s retirement in early 2009 paved the way for Hughes after one more successful season. This time, he played 8 matches and scored 963 runs 68.78 with 4 hundreds and 4 fifties. The numbers could not be ignored. Phil Jacques’ career had stalled after a few injuries and Simon Katich was the lone stable opener in the side. Hughes was to bring a dash of youth at the top of the order.

On February 26, 2009, Ricky Ponting handed the 20-year-old his Baggy Green at the Wanderers, Johannesburg. Pushed into the big bad world of international cricket, he was up against its famed bully Dale Steyn. Brydon Coverdale wrote in his article in ESPNCricinfo that Hughes and Katich reached an understanding. Katich was to field at forward short-leg if Hughes faced the first ball. And thus, Hughes began by facing Steyn. The maiden outing was short lived as he edged his fourth ball to Mark Boucher. A tough beginning, but it was only the lull before the storm.

Phillip Hughes scored twin tons in his second Test against South Africa © Getty Images
Phillip Hughes scored twin tons in his second Test against South Africa © Getty Images

As Australia took control of the Test, Hughes had a second chance and responded by scoring 75, an innings that contained 11 fours and a six. It was only the beginning. The stage was set for him at Durban, where he unleashed two centuries in a memorable victory. Cutting the pacers, charging to the spinner; Hughes showed remarkable maturity for a 20-year-old. It wasn’t all about playing the big shots, he showed his temperament to stay in the middle for long periods. As he cut past a packed ring on the off-side, the bowlers always felt they were in with a chance. Yet, he kept challenging those notions and picked up boundaries at will. In between, there were periods where he absorbed the pressure as well.

The South Africans of course dished out some sledges along the way to unnerve the youngster. This boy had the maturity of a man! Ponting wrote for News Corp, “I thought I’d better go down there and check how he was, but before I got there, he looked up and grinned at me. ‘I’m absolutely loving this,’ he said.” If the 115 in the first innings was flashy, the 160 in the second was measured. He became the youngest batsman to record two centuries in a Test and helped Australia win by 175 runs to clinch the series 2-0. A star was born.

The Hughes aura was felt miles away in England, where they were planning for the upcoming Ashes 2009. Middlesex contracted Hughes for a few games in the lead-up to the series, which would have served as an ideal preparation for the Aussie. The English too would have got a sight of the new sensation. A month after his heroics in South Africa, he was on his way to England to chart a bigger course.

Hughes announced himself with a ton in his maiden County Championship game. In all, he played three County Championship matches and scored centuries in all of them. He was also successful in List A cricket, building the hype ahead of the Ashes. However, the big Test was to be a tough series. In 3 innings of the first 2 Tests, he managed a highest score of 36. Worryingly, his tendency to poke outside the off-stump was exposed as he was caught behind on all three occasions. England’s seamers tempted him outside the off-stump and he fell for the trap. Following the defeat in the second Test at Lord’s, he was replaced by Shane Watson, and was relegated to the sidelines.

The next few months were spent away from the senior side. He shone for NSW during their Champions League T20 victory in India. Forming a successful opening partnership with David Warner, he powered his state to numerous good starts and played a huge role in their ultimate success. Though less intense, the form spilled into the summer and he was recalled ahead of the Sydney Test against Pakistan in 2010.

Playing his first game on Australian soil, at his homeground, Hughes failed as he was dismissed for a blob in the first innings by Mohammad Sami. In the second, he managed a calm 37, striking a steady 105-run opening stand with Watson. Australia managed to steal victory from Pakistan in a thrilling finale. For Hughes, it was one of those makeshift appearances. He had replaced Katich for this game and when Australia flew to New Zealand the next month, he was playing the first Test in place of Watson.

In that solitary appearance in New Zealand, Hughes unleashed the destructive side to his batting. Chasing 106 to win, Hughes hammered 86 in 75 balls to bludgeon the bowlers into submission. Yet, it wasn’t enough as Watson returned for the next Test. It was then a long wait to get back into the Test side. Hughes did not feature in the Tests against Pakistan in England and against India at home. He did play for Hampshire in the interval.

Again, it was Katich’s injury after the second Ashes Test in Adelaide in December 2010, that he returned to the side. Playing the last 3 Tests, he failed to make a mark with a highest score of 31. He did feature in the Sydney Test, which was Clarke’s first as captain. Hughes’ immediate future with the Australian team was quite uncertain after that series. Australia were reeling after a 1-3 defeat to the arch-rivals.

However, some drama ensued. Katich was controversially excluded from the contracts list and that allowed Hughes a more permanent spot as an opener. Sri Lanka wasn’t easy; spinners dismissed him 5 out of the 6 times he batted in Tests. Yet, it was that grit and spirit that came to the fore. After failing in the first innings in the third Test, he hit back by scoring 126 in the second innings on a typically crumbling subcontinental wicket. This innings held Australia together and consolidated their 1-0 series lead. Hughes had managed to save his spot for another tour. This time, he was going back to South Africa, the land where it all began.

Hughes continued to have those problems outside the off-stump. A ball pitched around the off-stump was met with a tentative push. An even better South African attack was at its best in an eagerly-contested series. In the second Test at Johannesburg, Hughes did manage a combative 88, which brought back memories of 2009. Against those pacers, he played his trademark outrageous shots through the off-side and powered Australia to a good start.

Back home, he had a nightmare in the two-match Test series against New Zealand. In all four innings he was dismissed in identical fashion —  c Martin Guptill b Chris Martin. Kerry O’Keefe humorously remarked on ABC Radio, “If Phil Hughes is shaving tomorrow and gets a nick, Martin Guptill will appear from the medicine cabinet with a band-aid.” The flaw was evident and that led to his axing from the side. Sent back to domestic cricket, he had a lot of work to do.

The second coming

Time away from the side was spent in Shield cricket and in England. Though he did not have a brilliant run in the County Championship cricket for Worcestershire in England, Hughes did manage to make an impact in List A and T20 cricket. A satisfying summer was then met with a good start in Shield cricket Down Under. Before the summer, he had made the move to South Australia, shifting base from Sydney to Adelaide. Meanwhile, Ponting retired in December 2012 after the last Test against South Africa in Perth. Hughes was tipped to be the successor and he filled into the role at Ponting’s homeground — Hobart — against Sri Lanka.

Hughes 2.0 seemed more in control of his game. That dash of youth was more tempered but not completely lost. He had retained that attacking instinct with a more controlled approach in the middle. He announced his return with 86 at Hobart and 87 in the third Test at Sydney. Hughes was gradually rebuilding his career.

On January 12, 2013, Hughes finally donned the green and gold. Opening the batting, he hit 112, to become the first Australian to score a century on ODI debut. In his fifth ODI, he hit another ton to assure confidence that he had well and truly weeded out the chinks in the armour. But, a tough tour to India followed where Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja tricked his unorthodox technique. The only standout performance came in the third Test at Mohali, where his 69 took on the tricks unleashed by Ashwin and Jadeja. It wasn’t a big score in magnitude but leant a lot in context of Australia’s team building. It was a confidence booster that he could go out there and deal with spin in his own way.

Hughes was picked for the Ashes 2013 as Darren Lehmann took charge. With some changes at the top, Hughes was pushed to No. 6 ahead of the first Test in Trent Bridge. Challenging England’s 215 in the first innings, Hughes walked out at 53 for 4. Soon, they collapsed to 117 for 9. In walked the young Ashton Agar, who won hearts with his fearless display of batting. As this youngster took charge, Hughes was reduced to a spectator at the other end. His 81 not out was an invaluable innings in this close contest, but sadly it was pushed into oblivion. And, he only managed two runs in the next 3 innings, and was dropped after the Lord’s Test. That was to be his last appearance with the Baggy Green.

Yet again, Hughes was dropped from the side. He did play in the ODI series in India, with mixed results. On return to Shield cricket in November 2013, he hit his maiden double-ton against Western Australia. Two more tons followed in the season. But, Australia were bouncing back on the big stage with a 5-0 victory in the Ashes 2013-14, which meant that Hughes was finding it tough to return.

It was all coming together in the middle of 2014. Playing for Australia A against South Africa A and India A, Hughes dominated the run-charts. This included a List A double ton against South Africa A and an innings of 243 not in a First-Class game against the same opposition. Clarke recently wrote in Daily Telegraph: “When he was last dropped from the Australian team he knuckled down, worked on parts of his technique that he felt could be improved and he peeled off century after century for South Australia.”

Recalled into the Australian side for the tri-series in Zimbabwe, he managed a couple of good scores. He was then included in all side for the tour to United Arab Emirates. That was the last time he played for Australia, making his last ODI and his only T20 International appearance. In a tough competition for spots in the Test side, Hughes lost out. As reports have stated after his sad passing, he wasn’t too depressed by it for he didn’t want his teammate to suffer. He lived in hope, but not at the cost of someone else’s dream.

The final chapter

Heading into the first Test against India in December, there was a cloud of uncertainty over Clarke’s fitness. Hughes was favoured to take his mate’s place in the line-up. Padding up for the third Shield game of the season, Hughes had that spot in mind. Determined to make it, he went out and played in his typical style against his old side at SCG. His mother Virginia and sister Megan were in attendance. Some of his teammates were on the other side as they watched him gradually make his case for a return. Through the day, he is said to have left numerous short deliveries, watching them closely and letting them go through.

That fateful moment © Getty Images
That fateful moment © Getty Images

Batting on 63, Sean Abbott pitched one short that rose sharply. Hughes shaped to pull, missed it and was hit on the back of the head. He looked shocked, and in seconds fell to the ground face-first. His teammates and the opposition surrounded him. Abbott, Warner, Watson, Brad Haddin, all stood around him. Hughes did not respond. In came the medics and took him off the field. Even a helicopter came in as the medics tried their best to provide first air. However, he was driven to St Vincent’s hospital, where he was operated upon. Kept in a medically induced coma, the doctors gave him a window of 24 to 48 hours to make an assessment.

How could this happen? With helmets coming on, we often took safety for granted. We have seen many a batsmen get back on their feet after being felled by a bouncer. But, replays showed that Hughes was hit on the back of the head, in an area left unprotected. His collapse was scary; horrifying to say the least. It shocked the cricket world, which united to pray for his good health. The Sheild games were suspended as Australia waited nervously.

November 27, 2014. This is a day no cricket fan would want to remember. The world woke up to the news that Hughes had succumbed to his injuries. Hughes was inexplicably someone very relate-able, even with those who did not follow the game closely. A boy who grew up on a farm, dreamed big, went to the city and had achieved quite a lot. But, there were more dreams in store with age on his side. The realization hit hard! How much can life change in a few moments. On November 24, he would have visualized himself getting a big score and walking out to play the Brisbane Test. Four days down the line, that dream was lost somewhere. The world saw a new side: The aggressive batsman, quiet fielder now became your friend, brother and son. In a way, everyone could associate with him. The Hughes’ family’s sorrow was the cricket world’s sorrow.

The cricket world united in mourning the death of the farm boy who dazzled with the willow in hand. The first Test between India and Australia was postponed. Miles away, Pakistan and New Zealand struggled to get going with their game, with the former collapsing in an atmosphere where nothing else mattered. Brendon McCullum smashed his way to a double, but did not celebrate. The world joined in the #putoutyourbats campaign in his memory. A bat and a cap was all that was left of the Macksville dream. The smiling face was only a memory!

Perhaps the most telling picture was that of Clarke breaking down in a press conference, where he delivered a statement on behalf of the Australian team. Men don’t cry? Here was one of the toughest cricketers around failing to hold his grief in. Hughes was Clarke’s friend and brother. Clarke’s tear echoed the sentiments of the whole team and the world watched and shed a tear in return. “We love you Braz we always will!” Clarke concluded. We wish we had seen you bat a lot more, wish you had seen you grin and smile, wish you had hugged your parents after your Test ton, we wish we got to know you more. Rest in Peace Phillip Hughes!

Complete coverage of Phillip Hughes’s Funeral

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_45)