Phil Hughes (left) and Shane Watson © Getty Images
Phil Hughes (left) and Shane Watson © Getty Images

It was at Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) that Phillip Hughes, 10 days short of his 19th birthday, was awarded with the prestigious blue cap of New South Wales. That had marked the beginning of a promising First-Class career. SCG later went on to be a part of him. In his third First-Class match, Hughes batted at No. 6 and was dismissed by Queensland’s Shane Watson. A year later Watson would make a switch to NSW, thus becoming Hughes’ teammate for both the state and Australia.

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Michael Clarke had once tipped his close friend Hughesy to become a 100-Test cricketer. Hughes had got off to a promising start in 2009. Australia were in the den of the strong South Africans. Hughes, then 20, was sent back by a fired-up Dale Steyn for 0. Hughes returned the favours by slamming 75, 115 and 160 in the next 3 innings.

Hughes’ career got off to a rollicking start but could not gather the steam as it progressed. There were moments of brilliance followed by inconsistency. In 2013-14 he switched from NSW to South Australia. Later in the season, he would go on to become the first — and till now, only — Australian to slam a hundred on ODI debut.

By mid-2014 Hughes was banging the national selection doors. He had slammed a List A double-hundred against South Africa A in a tri-series. He had made sporadic appearances for Australia in ODIs after that. He slammed a match-winning 85 against South Africa at Harare.

The Indians had arrived in Australia. Hughes was eyeing a Test berth. The season had been of inconsistent sorts for him: 14 and 65 against Pakistan A, 20 and 69 against NSW and 7 and 11 against Victoria. In the return leg of the Sheffield Shield match against his old side NSW at SCG, Hughes had found rhythm against a hostile bowling attack that comprised Mitchell Starc, Doug Bollinger, Sean Abbott, Watson, Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe.

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Hughes had limped to 63. Abbott was steaming in. Watson stood at the first slip. Abbott hurled a bouncer that struck Hughes on the head, making him fall on the pitch. The match was stopped right away. Two days of fight against odds went in vain: on November 27, 2014, Hughes breathed his last, 3 days before his 26th birthday.

The last ball that Phillip Hughes faced © Getty Images
The last ball that Phillip Hughes faced © Getty Images

Like many other others, Watson was shaken by the horrors. Clarke, who was not playing the match for NSW, cried like a child. Cricket lost its ‘innocence’, at least Watson feels so. We will come to that.

Watson was a bully against fast bowlers, but thoughts of what-if-me doused the fire in him. He wasn’t the same Test cricketer anymore.

“I didn’t have fear, honestly, up until Phil Hughes got killed. Fast bowling was always my strength … I was fielding at first slip when Phil got hit, so it wasn’t until that moment that fear came into my game massively, and that was one of the reasons why against fast bowling in my career, in my performance with the bat started to really dive, because I had no idea how to deal with it,” Watson told Sydney Morning Herald (SMH).

Watson represented Australia in 59 Tests, 190 ODIs and 58 T20Is. Between Hughes’ death and his last Test in 2015, Watson appeared in 7 Tests, scoring 323 runs at just 26.91. He retired with a batting average of 35.19.

“The innocence of the game of cricket went immediately. I always knew that you could get hurt of course … if a ball went through my helmet I could fracture my face or my eye socket or jaw or whatever it was but never ever contemplated that you could actually get killed.

Phillip Hughes: The Boy from Macksville
Phillip Hughes: The Boy from Macksville

“I had a two-year-old son at that stage. Will was two and just the thought that went through and continued to go through my mind for a long period of time, was ‘what if that was me?’. Like what happens to my family, not just my mum and dad, but my wife and my son,” added Watson.

SMH reports: “A chance meeting with Indycar driver Will Power at the Dally M awards put Watson in contact with a performance coach in America, who had a history of working with professional drivers as well as fighter pilots and special operations troops. After flying to Charlotte and having sessions, Watson has been able to process what happened that day more effectively.”

“’That’s where, subconsciously, the fear just continued to be there for a long period of time until I actually really understood how to deal with it. To be able to one, talk about it as a starting point, because I could not talk about it if anyone ever bought it up or anything I just shut it down,’” Watson further added.

Even after quitting Test cricket, Watson continued to remain a useful resource in limited-overs cricket for Australia. He was part of the side that lifted the World Cup four months after Hughes’ death and continued playing international cricket till 2016 World T20.

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In the Test that followed. Mitchell Johnson greeted Virat Kohli with a bouncer that felled the Indian captain. Johnson was aghast. The ferocious moustache from The Ashes 2013-14 was gone, as was the intent. He seemed not willing to play anymore. The fire and intensity seemed to have doused off.

Cricket, left in a state of shock and grief, struggled but finally moved on as the little man found a place in the game’s soul.