When the Australian players walk out to begin the test match in Adelaide in a few hours, they will still be hurting like hell.
The rawness of Phillip Hughes’ death will barely have abated, and they will need to find their own way to get through the game, to take that necessary step that allows them to get on with their own lives while still leaving space to mourn the hole in their lives where Phillip Hughes used to be.
The unpredictability of grief means we should expect and accept pretty much any reaction. There may be players who simply can’t allow themselves to contemplate the grief and will put it to one side for the whole game, while others may be overwhelmed by it. There is no one-size-fits-all response to the fathomless loss of a loved one. As spectators, our response to the players should be only compassion.
But where does cricket go beyond this test match when it comes to remembering Phillip Hughes?
So far, the reaction has been extraordinary. Much of its intensity has come from the genuine, heartfelt and remarkably beautiful words written and spoken by those close to the young batsman and to the game. I can’t remember the last time such a rush of perfectly-chosen words came flowing from the pens of cricket writers, bloggers and even tweeters. And Michael Clarke’s eulogy? Well, that was something else.
People have revealed their true selves in recent days, inspired by sheer grief to throw off the shackles of expectation and societal norms. Suddenly the fragility of human existence and the flimsiness of the masks we wear were there for all to see. We are all the same beneath the differently-coloured caps and sport is, after all, sport. Hughes’ team-mates and the wider cricketing fraternity grieved openly and with dignity for the life that will remain unlived.
I hope this honesty can remain. My fear is that it will be overtaken.
In our modern society where anomie and despair make uncomfortable bedfellows and result in ostentatious displays of collective grief, we may find the visceral, searing, truth-telling honesty of Clarke et al’s reaction is subsumed by grand, calculated, institutionalised gestures.
Of course collective grief is useful and necessary sometimes. It allows communities to find a shared understanding and consequently some much-needed consolation. Clearly what has happened since Phillip Hughes’ death, such as the putting out of bats in solidarity, has been of great comfort to his family, friends and team-mates who can never be in any doubt that he was loved.
But with Cricket Australia planning a series of events to remember Phillip Hughes, I find myself urging them to play it low-key, to give people opportunities to grieve but not to create an unstoppable institution, not to make it into 63notout the brand. Once it reaches this corporatised level, then the connection with the real feelings expressed so eloquently in recent days is lost. Suddenly everyone will find themselves obliged to behave and react in a certain way, and the natural rhythms of their own grief process will be lost.
It’s not hard to picture batsmen in a few months’ time, reaching 63 and feeling they ought to raise their bat to the sky for fear of being the first not to do so, and risk showing disrespect where none was meant. Similarly the spectator who would rather share a tacitly-understood glance with a friend or simply have their own private thoughts is obliged to stand and applaud because that is what everyone else in the ground is doing. And suddenly Phillip Hughes’ death is no longer about Phillip Hughes but is about people being anxious to be seen to be doing the right thing.
Everyone has their own way to deal with these things. They don’t need other people to tell them how. Just look at the events since the tragedy happened. Leave people to express their own thoughts in their own way, and we hear the truth. Truth about them, about their friends, about cricket, about life.