The perfect Test

A happy birthday balloon was floating at the front of Adelaide Oval on day one. It’s the ground’s 130th Test birthday. It wasn’t for that.

The balloon was for the birthday that Phillip Hughes never had. It floated above the spontaneous fan tribute to Hughes. Cricket’s spirit proudly on display.

Underneath it was a Christmas tree. Radios. Beer. Sunglasses. Illustrations. Headbands. Flowers. A toy cow. And cricket gear. So much cricket gear. Bats with rosary beads. Tear stained balls. Kids’ bats. Signed gloves. Well-used bats. Pads with stories. Illustrated bats. Bats. Bats. Bats. All put out.

Team hats from clubs all around Australia are there. One from Orange. Another from the Bowen Barracudas. And the Brothers Cricket Club. There is also one from Merlynston Hadfield Cricket Club. Probably one of the hardest cricket clubs in Melbourne. It was a club famous for men, and boys, who batted without gloves. Their home ground seemed more frightening that the cemetery next door. One of them donated his bat to this. Even the hard men are crying.

Then there is a helmet. It’s hard not to think it should be on someone’s head instead of sitting in this tribute. On the peak is a photo of Phillip Hughes.

The condolence book is full. “Bat on forever”. “We love you mate”. “Hope you’re smashing them in heaven”. It has far too many RIPs written in kids’ handwriting.

A fan walks past, takes a quick look and says it’s “too morbid”. Hughes’ promotional photo smiles back at him from the wall.

Cricket Australia tried to find the balance between being respectful and over the top in their tribute. They had his Test number 408 written on the field, and on the shirts. The players wore special armbands with PH on them. They made Hughes 13th man; since the Lord’s Test, Hughes had often been the 13th man. Now there was no other choice.

The players stood to pay their respects. Players from both sides look to the sky. Some look upset. Virat Kohli looks as he often does. It might have been a moving moment, but Kohli was focused on something else. That first Test as captain. And when Kohli is focused, there is little that can change that.

The ground is filled with the voice of Richie Benaud. You don’t often hear Richie at the ground. So from the speakers he sounds like the voice of the cricket God. But it was a broken Richie, older and upset, sounding like he never had before. It was a relief when he finished, the sadness from every word was unbearable. And what followed was 63 seconds of applause.

The fans had turned up early, very early. They were eager to pay their respects. To see what would happen next. To help cricket heal. Strangely for Adelaide, most of them didn’t head out the back of the members’ to drink. They watched the cricket. Cricket Australia and the crowd had played their part, but in truth, the game now needed to start healing itself. New Zealand and Pakistan had helped, but it was too removed from the moment. This was right in Hughes’ new hometown. On his pitch. A Test he could have played in.

The Varun Aaron bouncer to David Warner came in the fourth over. It felt like much longer. Every single ball seemed to build the pressure. Waiting, wondering, hoping it would be okay. Praying that one freak accident wouldn’t attract another. Wanting the cricket to be nicer, but still the same. Varun didn’t make them wait long for the healing. He cleared the air as he whizzed past Warner’s ear. It made cricket feel a bit normal.

Once Varun had assured us that cricket was still what we remembered, we then had something not normal. A live cricket memorial. It was touching, amazing and seemingly never-ending. Warner remembered Hughes on 50, 63 and 100. Michael Clarke did it on 37, but hit a boundary to skip 63. Steven Smith did it on 50, 63 and 100 as well. Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle all did so when taking their wickets.

There was looking at the sky. Raising the bat at the sky. Standing by the number. They pointed at the number. Touching the arm band. Patting the 408 on the heart. Raising the ball to the sky. Kissing the armband.

Black armbands have been too prevalent in recent cricket history. They were worn after terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan team. And when Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wanted to protest their government’s regime. These were for the victims of fascism and terrorism. The ones in Hughes’ honour were for a victim of cricket.

The crowd cheered when the total went to 408 as well. It was as if the 63 seconds of applause from day one would never end.

Then a noise. Hearts skipped. Some players heard the same same sound they had at 2:23pm, 25 November on the SCG. The crowd went silent. Johnson wore panic on his face. The Australians rushed at Kohli, not as a predators, but as comforters.

All cricket fans marvelled at this new Australia. Maybe cricket had been changed by the Hughes incident. Maybe it was just a bit nicer. More one family than war by other means.

Like Aaron, Virat just got on with the cricket. It’s not a surprise. Virat’s father died during a Ranji trophy match in Virat’s first season. Virat was the not-out batsman overnight when his father passed. Virat still batted the next day. He made 90.

The Indians may have been fumbling, dropping and missing balls in the field. Their bowlers may have had trouble with line and or length. They might have bowled around the wicket, roughing up the pitch for offspinners, despite not having one. Their batsmen might have given away starts. But they were playing cricket.

Virat was playing something else. Something special. He hit a cover drive that should be put in the Louvre. Off his pads he was virtuoso Virat. When they went short, he handled it. When they went full he punished it. He was all business in one of the most personal Tests ever played.

At 100, there were no gestures for Hughes. He was full of fire and brimstone. He swung his bat around like an axe. He was inspiring his team; threatening his team. Showing them what passion really is. This Test meant a lot to so any people, but regardless of Hughes, it meant just as much to Kohli. He pointed to his damaged badge like a warrior who had conquered an army.

Clarke also did no special gesture for his hundred. He could barely lift his bat. Clarke was overcoming his back, his hamstring and his heart. His innings was full of the sort of determination the Australian public had once accused him of not having. He was the first Australian batsman to make a hundred after being retired hurt. And probably the first to give a eulogy of a team-mate before making a Test hundred.

Two giants of the game, moving us forward in different ways.

On the rare occasions when there were no moments to applaud at the ground, they found them in the Shield games. Ed Cowan made two emotional hundreds in Hobart.

The SCG had something even more remarkable. There is no way we can ever really work out what Sean Abbott is going through. Hughes is on every TV, newspaper, magazine, radio show and website in Australia. There is no way Abbott can exist in this country right now without being reminded of it. Even Elton John gave a shout out to Hughes and Abbott during a set. This is a huge thing for a 22-year-old.

Other players who didn’t even deliver the ball had to miss their Shield games this week as they were too upset. Abbott played. Maybe he just had to. Grief doesn’t come with a strict set of guidelines, you just get through it. Abbott bowled through his. In his first over Abbott had bowled a bouncer, later he took wickets. Everyone was pleased for him, pleased for cricket.

That seemed like nothing when he ran into bowl on the second innings against Queensland. This magical collection of six deliveries. A short wide one. A couple that kept low. A ripper outside off. A quick yorker. And the brute. It jumped up into the glove that was moving into a defensive position towards the throat before ending in slip’s hand. Every single delivery seemed to be a gift from cricket. Unless you were the batsmen who faced them.

When Abbott’s figures hit the big screen, the crowd applauded. So did Warner. So did cricket.

Bouncers were okay. Hits were okay. Abbott was okay. Cricket was okay.

The whole thing was nice. Indian reporters and fans were shocked that this was the Australia who had spent years bullying and sledging their players, who now openly wept, cared for the opposition’s safety and stopped to celebrate a mate so often. Cricket’s new world was friendly and nice.

The amnesty lasted ten sessions. During the second session of the fourth day, the birthday balloon for Hughes finally hit the ground. In a perfect world, it might have floated there forever. Cricket’s world has never been perfect.

On the field, Kohli brought cricket back down to earth. Kohli’s decision to send off Chris Rogers was aggressive, unfriendly and kind of bizarre. Australia were setting a total, they were in front, it’s Chris Rogers and he swept a ball to a fielder. It’s like sending off your uncle in a backyard game. Why you would walk beside Rogers doing an angry chicken dance send off is anyone’s guess.

By contrast, the Aaron send off was actually pretty tame. He yelled “come on” in the general direction of David Warner. Some thought Kohli might have done the same thing. But if both players started it, Warner took it to a whole new level. When the no-ball was brought to his attention. He didn’t walk back to the striker’s end. He went to the non-striker’s end to shout “come on” at Aaron three times. He then aggressively left the next ball, and did it again.

It was in no way like the man who cried into his captain’s shoulder in day one.

Shikhar Dhawan walked in as the third man to try and make it worse. He did. Kohli then tried to play peacemaker, which no one looked comfortable with.

Michael Clarke said “there’s a chance I might never play again”. Virat Kohli said he was “getting to terms to how life goes on every single day”. Cricket and life will continue to go on © Getty Images
Later, Warner and Kohli ended up next to each other as Smith and Cheteshwar Pujara were also involved. It was ugly. It was aggressive. It was also cricket. The two teams weren’t playing a memorial game in Hughes’ honour, they were playing a Test in his honour. Tough. Ugly. And not always right.

The umpires kept that up on day five. DRS doesn’t like it when we ignore it. It pokes its head in any way it can. It’s cricket’s third rail. You can’t touch DRS without losing friends and feeling dirty. Was Dhawan’s decision a howler? Would DRS change the Test? Would it have stopped Nathan Lyon from appealing so strenuously that it seemed like he might combust?

Lyon was more throbbing vein than human by the end.

His career is quite Hughes-like. Lyon knows what it is like to be praised and pariahed. Big at the beginning. Mocked and overlooked later on. He was dropped for random spinners who struggle to take 12 wickets in a season. And he was even dropped after his previous best performance. He was coming off a series where the fans gave up on him. He was playing the best players of spin, on their favoured Australian pitch. In the first innings he was attacked, he was unlucky. In the second conquered the last-day demons. He conquered the Indians. But he couldn’t move Marais Erasmus.

Solid and unmoving. There was no romanticism or hometown bias. Erasmus wasn’t umpiring for Hughes’ memory or some perfectly scripted ending. He simply believed that every single ball was missing the top of the bails. He was made into the villain, but even he couldn’t be blamed when Clarke’s body finally gave up.

Australia had lost a mate. Their captain was in hospital. Even technology was against them.

But it was Kohli between them and happiness.

Kohli was dogmatic. Kohli was dominant. Kohli was floating above the crease like a supernatural being. It would be an understatement to just call it batting. Mitchell Johnson broke an entire team here last year. In the space of two balls, Kohli had smashed him, smiled at him, and then laughed as he bowled a wide.

There are some innings that look like they can’t be ended. Kohli’s looked like he refused to believe there was an ending. When you bat like this, when you lead like this, when you believe like this, it should end with you being carried on the shoulders of your team-mates.

Kohli should have been brought down by a ball of the century. The world’s best-ever run-out. A catch of the pure athleticism. Something fitting of the innings. The class. The grit. The specialness.

Kohli’s innings should have been brought down by greatness. It should have. It wasn’t.

The ball was short. Really short. It should have been a drifting ripper that sliced through the gate. It should have. It wasn’t. It was so short Lyon would have been disgusted with his effort. The ball should have been heaved into the Mark Ricciuto stand. It should have been annihilated by Kohli’s mere existence. It should have. It wasn’t.

It clanged against his bat like a shopping trolley hitting a car. It floated out accidentally towards Mitchell Marsh. It should have been taken quite easily. It should have. It wasn’t. Marsh went the wrong way. Then his hands went the wrong way. And in the end he fell to ground like a toppled animal and caught it like it was his first ever catch.

Kohli bent over at the waist. He never left the crease. He clutched at the blade of his bat. In both innings he had been king of the crease. Now he was trapped there by disappointment. And he couldn’t even hold the bat properly.

His grief was like no one else’s in the whole Test. It was purely for the win. Not for a friend. Not for a cricketer. But he had taken his side within sight of a great away win in one of the greatest Tests. And then he’d made one mistake. He stayed there for such a long time, it looked like he might never leave that crease.

It was utter devastation. But finally, for the first time in a few weeks, devastation of the right kind. A captain losing the match with one mistake. A poorly executed shot. A cricket tragedy. Not a tragedy.

When the Australians took the last wicket they followed Brad Haddin who ran manically across the field. The ended up next to the 408. There had been many tributes that had obviously been thought about by the players involved. This seemed accidental. This seemed unplanned. This was a perfect cricket moment. The perfect Test. The perfect celebration.

After play, a band out the back of the members’ played Throw Your Arms Around Me by the Hunters and Collectors. They played it really loud; you could hear it float out over the outfield.

I will squeeze the life out of you
You will make me laugh and make me cry
We will never forget it
You will make me call your name and I’ll shout it to the blue summer sky
We may never meet again
So shed your skin and lets get started
And you will throw your arms around me

Michael Clarke said “there’s a chance I might never play again”. Virat Kohli said he was “getting to terms to how life goes on every single day”. Cricket and life will continue to go on. This time Test cricket dug in and got through to tea.


3 thoughts on “The perfect Test

  1. Dan says:

    Love it- great writing

  2. jogesh99 says:

    It really was.

    And Kohli’s superlative batting does not excuse his perpetual obnoxious behaviour. The guy’s celebrations make me cringe. Waugh is right, he does play like an Aussie.

  3. Devenn says:

    “It’s like sending off your uncle in a backyard game.” Bwahahahaha Kohli is such a dude. No seriously!

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