Kim Hughes is not George Bailey, his story is not a re-run of It’s a Wonderful Life. But, it well could be. It’s a story that meanders through a parallel universe, and in the end, Hughes, like the fictional character portrayed by James Stewart, realises that irrespective of the trials and tribulations he has come out victorious on the other side. If not necessarily in the cricket world, then definitely in the world away from the 22-yard strip; in life.
The most dashing strokeplayer of his era, a technique so pure, a flair so natural, and a prodigy so precocious, greatness it seemed was merely a cricketing lifetime away. A man destined to join Victor Trumper, Don Bradman and Greg Chappell in the pantheon of Australian batting greats, eventually ended his 70-Test career with an average of 37.41. Thilan Samaraweera averages 53.42!
The above fact isn’t a slight on Samaraweera, it’s merely a reminder that life works in ways no mortal can understand. The subtle shifts and undercurrents of the daily grind that make us the men we are, hinge on changes so minute they’d be invisible to all but the practiced eye. Even to eyes of the man who lived that life.
Now 57, Hughes has the benefit of hindsight to look back and ponder.
“It’s a bit like that movie Sliding Doors. Your life could depend on that one instant. Which door you choose, which door opens for you, even the one that are shut can assume great significance,” Hughes tells HT, the golden curly locks of yesteryear now replaced with greying tresses.
Born to be great
That greatness was calling out for him could be gauged from an early age. “I was selected for the Western Australia Sheffield Shield squad at 16. I was the youngest to ever get selected for the state,” he says with a glint in his eye, his mind meandering back to his days at junior grade cricket.
His first coach instilled in him the belief that he was destined to captain Australia. Imagine a 16-year-old being told, “It’s your destiny to captain Australia.”
Through summers spent playing cricket, and nothing but cricket, in the oppressive Perth heat, his skin had a pinkish hue. By the time he made his first-class debut he knew he was in the pink of health. “I got a century on my debut for Western Australia,” he remembers.
Australian cricket was in turmoil. A rift between the Australian Cricket Board, the precursor to Cricket Australia, and the Kerry Packer-led World Series Cricket had divided the cricketing world in half. Hughes found himself drafted into the Test side. Four matches later, he scored his first hundred; eleven matches in, he was thrust into captaincy, at his home WACA ground, no less.
In his first match, he led his inexperienced bunch to victory over Pakistan. “It was a great victory. We were playing against a Pakistan side that had many greats – Zaheer Abbas, Imran Khan, Mohsin Khan, Mudassar Nazar,” he recalls. He then led a young bunch to India. He may have lost, but not through any fault of his. In the six Tests, he scored 594 runs on rank turners, a tally that has never been bettered by any visiting Australian batsman.
Better than the best
The two innings he played in the Centenary Test at Lord’s are among the best the hallowed ground has seen. He hit 117 in the first innings, 84 in the second, batted on all five days of the rain-curtailed Test. His six off paceman Chris Old is the stuff of legends. Walking almost three yards down the pitch, the massive hit landed on the top deck of the members' pavilion, failing narrowly to clear the building altogether.
There was the unbeaten 100 on Boxing Day in 1981 against a West Indies attack featuring Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft. No one else scored more than 21, the team was all out for 198. Hughes came in at 8/3 and proceeded to play an innings that Wisden listed as the 9th best Test innings of all time.
He enjoyed the good times while they lasted because they were soon coming to an end. The record books show he won just 4 of his 28 matches as captain. But for a few freak events, he’d still be celebrated as one of Australia’s great captains.
Instead, he stepped down in tears in 1984, in one of the most emotionally charged press conferences the game has seen. He couldn’t even complete the speech he’d written, handing it over to manager Bob Merriman who ended it for him, as he left the room trying to hold back the tears.
He played two more Tests after that but with scores of 0,2,0,0 and a rebel tour to South Africa later, his career was over.
Headingly 1981. That doesn’t need any further explanation, does it? The Ian Botham Test. Following on, Beefy changed the course of the match, the series, and eventually, Hughes’ career with the most unabashed innings of power hitting. “They were following on and when Botham and (Graham) Dilley were at the crease, if a few things went our way, who knows. Botham played the innings of his life. Even at 50/1 we had a chance then Bob Willis (who almost didn’t play the match because of an injury) came on and bowled like he’d never bowled before and got 8/24. Had we won, we would’ve gone 2-0 up in the series, regained the Ashes and come home a hero,” he reminisces, pauses, and then just shrugs. Life goes on.
Before the series, there were ominous portents. Greg Chappell, the Australia captain, didn’t tour and Rod Marsh wanted to be the skipper, his great mate Dennis Lillie wanted Marsh to skipper. The job eventually went to Hughes.
In the firing line
He was now in the firing line, with his own lieutenants taking aim at him. The sight of him batting at the nets always got the devil out in Lillee. The great pacer would be doing laps, running around. The moment Hughes came out to bat, Lillee would put all things aside and head to the net. He would then proceed to pepper Hughes with bouncer after another bouncer.
The rift between the Lillie-Marsh and Hughes was a known thing, just how deep the rift went can be gauged by this example. After bowling a bouncer which Hughes ducked, Lillee went up to him and said, “I’m sorry,” to which Hughes calmly responded, “it’s okay.” Just as the words left Hughes’ lips, Lillie shot back, “I’m sorry I didn’t f**kng hit ya.”
“I felt more safe out in the middle facing the West Indies pacers, then I did in the nets,” Hughes recalls.
So bad were tensions in the camp, that Hughes wasn't even part of the team selection during the Ashes tour. "I didn't get the team I asked for. If we had Bruce Laird and Bruce Yardley, we would've won that series. I wasn't even part of the team selection. Greg Chappell, who wasn't even touring, had a say in team selection, I didn't," Hughes remembers.
But having lived through all off that, and more, Hughes has come out victorious on the other side. “Now, me and Dennis and Rod are very good mates. We meet quite often, have long chats.”
A loving father to four children, a devoted husband, and a successful businessman, Hughes still sometimes feels the pain of his story gone awry. “I’ve moved on and am quite happy. However, you do think about it at times and wonder. What if…”