Review of ‘Golden Boy’ by Christian Ryan

Like many cricket tragics, the first thing I associate with Kim Hughes is not any cover drive he played, nor any win he was involved with, but the distraught press conference he gave announcing his resignation from the Australian captaincy. Far from the cliché of the role being every boy’s dream, it had became a waking nightmare to the permanent man-child Hughes and ended, quite literally, in tears.

How did he ever reach this point? Things had begun so promisingly. For a long time his dominance of the world cricket stage seemed nothing less than destiny. He broke into the national team not by the sheer volume of runs he made, but by the manner he made them; elegant and imperious. At his best, nobody could bowl to him, though he had a tendency to lose concentration, to get himself out. No matter, his supporters argued, these moments were just the last vestiges of youthful impetuosity which would fade with experience.

Yet his cavalier approach to batting never really changed. Australian cricket had fallen on evil times and the golden-haired youngster was too inconsistent to be the messianic figure promised, constantly in and out of the eleven in his early years. Things really soured when he was prematurely elevated to the captaincy. The powerful clique of Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and the Chappell brothers were opposed to the appointment, believing the job to rightly be Marsh’s. If it is not quite accurate to say these players undermined Hughes’ captaincy, Ryan explains, then it is clear that they were never unhappy to see him fail. None of that group speak here about the issue, apparently happy for it to be airbrushed out of history.

Others have been willing to talk about the social schisms, bullying and sad macho posturing, however, and their accounts of the team at this time are damning. Newcomers to the setup found the prevailing mood a “mixture of panic and unease” and watched aghast as Lillee mercilessly pounded his captain with bouncers in the nets and ignored his instructions on the field.

If this was humiliating, worse was still to come. When Packer raided Australian cricket to form his breakaway competition, Hughes was overlooked (he later unconvincingly claimed he was approached, a claim denied by those in the Packer camp) despite being Australian captain. He ended up leading a rebel tour to South Africa, a sad and unworthy end.

One of the themes of Golden Boy is that sporting success is never inevitable and is always subject to the whims of fate. If Hughes had played in an era with less menacing opposition bowlers, or more supportive colleagues, he may be remembered as a great. His best knocks deserve that epithet. Ryan brackets three of them with Stan McCabe’s famed triumvirate of innings, and there is no higher praise from a coinoisseur. But the glory days were all too infrequent.

Hughes’ failure to touch this greatness more often cannot be solely placed at the feet of others. His was an unusual personality, combining an almost pitiful need to be liked with a kind of nonchalant arrogance that meant he would never take advice from others nor learn from his on-field mistakes. He was altogether too emotional for leadership, his assessment of the game at any time betrayed by his boyish face. When Ian Botham played a fabled innings to engineer the most improbable of English victories, many condemned Hughes’ “kicked-puppy demeanour”

On one level, this is an incredibly accomplished biography of irreconcilable personality clashes, the sad tale of opportunities missed and promise unfulfilled. It is also the best cricket book in recent years not written by someone called Gideon Haigh. Among its chief attributes is its implicit recognition that cricket is essentially a sport of individual confrontations masquerading as a team game. When Hughes’ humiliation played out in the most public of arenas, he was horribly, utterly alone.

Golden Boy : Kim Hughes and the bad old days of Australian cricket

Christian Ryan

(Allen & Unwin, $35.00)

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