In 1985 Hugh McIlvanney wrote after the sudden death of Jock Stein of “the larcenous nature of death, its habit of breaking in on us when we are least prepared and stealing the irreplaceable”. McIlvanney’s words came immediately to my mind on hearing of the death overnight of Phillip Hughes.
We invest our dreams in people like Phillip Hughes. We’ve all dreamed of being able to do what they do. Even today, in my forties, I catch myself during the moments in between, imagining creaming a cover drive to the Lord’s boundary in front of a packed house, or smacking a Cup Final winner into the top corner for Charlton.
People like Phillip Hughes not only have the same dreams as us they are equipped to realise them, and when they walk out onto that field they become immortal. Their exploits and achievements are preserved in our collective memory to remain there, ageless, a fleeting moment made permanent by our awe and its resonance with the echoes of our dreams.
In those moments when we see the ball hit the back of the net or fly off the middle of the bat, just fleetingly, for a fraction of a second, nothing else in the world matters. We are absorbed entirely by the appreciation and celebration of a beautiful thing, a scarce, possibly unique moment in adulthood of absolute, joyous, untainted innocence.
When we watch a Test match, say, or our football team, we are investing our own hopes and dreams in the players, especially the ones on our team. ‘Our’ team – in its phraseology sport has that ultimate spiritual democracy of communal possession that binds us to the people out there in the colours we favour, creating a collective ownership of shared memory and shared dreams.
We know also that the men or women out on the field have had the exact same dreams of great achievement, of having the ability to create those pure moments of absolute innocence, only they carry the precious bundle of gifts that permits them to make them real.
They are the curators of our dreams and our innocence. When they die, a little piece of all of us goes with them.