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Why the captain lay down and cried

by Peter Roebuck

Kim Hughes

Kim Hughes
Photo ©:

Last week, dramatically, Australia’s cricket captain resigned. His team was 2-0 down in the series, and was being outplayed by the magnificent West Indians. He had himself dropped several easy catches, and twice thrown away his wicket.

And yet he did not resign because of cricket, nor because he would have been sacked if he had not resigned. Australia have not yet lost the series, there is no obvious candidate of calibre to succeed and no one can entirely blame a captain whose team is not good enough.

Kim Hughes was forced out. He succumbed to the cumulative venom of critics who rejoiced at his every impetuosity, who were determined to nail him. In the end, they succeeded. His was a hot-headed decision taken in haste, and delivered with tear-jerking emotion.

Hughes has plenty of enemies. His most savage critic was the sour, grizzly Ian Chappell, the man who led the World Series Cricket rebellion in 1977. He saw Hughes as a blue-eyed boy, a favoured son of the establishment and even in live interviews before Test matches, heaped scorn upon him.

Nor were Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh (who had played under Hughes) slow to condemn him. They too spat at Hughes’s impetuosity; they too felt that he was the chosen man of the establishment who had risen to the top without serving an appropriate apprenticeship.
They loathed his polish and laughed at his rashness.

This hostility to Hughes has its origins in the 1977 tour to England, the tour on which the Packer split was revealed. Of Greg Chappell’s team, only Craig Serjeant and Hughes remained loyal to their governing board. Hughes’s reward was mixed. He was selected for only one Test match in that series being left out for Ritchie Robinson and lan Davis; he condemned himself in the eyes of his peers as a tool of the establishment, but he won the captaincy of his country.

As Ian Chappell was dropping his trousers, as Lillee was throwing his aluminium bat, as Marsh was betting on England, Hughes was presenting himself as the knight in shining armour destined to rescue the honour of his country’s cricket.

Hughes could have defeated his enemies had he been a successful or disciplined captain. As it is, he led his team to victory in only four out of 28 Tests, and still plunged into foolhardy adventures. He remains a professional cricketer unable to convince his colleagues of his leadership and maturity. To the contrary, he has loaded his enemies’ guns.

Bust of Kim Hughes in Cootamundra

Kim Hughes’ bust in the Cricket Captains’ Walk in Cootamundra.
Photo ©: Debra Widdicombe, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Years ago, he charged Willis’s bowling immediately after lunch in a Test match. His idea, apparently was to surprise the fast bowler, in fact, he surprised everyone on the ground by lifting the ball to mid-off. Last March, frustrated by the tactics of a weak Trinidad team, Hughes ordered his batsmen to defend when they were left with only an hour or so to bat. Not one wanted to bat with him, for his team-mates realised the silliness of this conduct. In the end, Greg Matthews accompanied his captain in his pointless protest. Everyone else was embarrassed.

This Australian season, Hughes has continued his erratic ways, mixing the poised excellence of his batting with strange rushes of blood. Twice he’s been caught hooking. The second time in Brisbane, he could not bring himself to follow the path of the ball into Marshall’s hands. He stood, head bowed, like some schoolboy who had just broken a window, until the cheers of the West Indians informed him of his fate. With Ian Chappell perched in the commentator’s box, with Greg Chappell and Rick McCosker (another 1977 tourist) selecting the team, he might as well have tightened his own noose.

And yet there had been signs that, at least, the hero was maturing. In the West Indies, a more stable captain emerged, or so it appeared. Relieved of the company of Lillee and Marsh (with friends like these…), and with Border subdued Hughes forged a spirit resilient enough to save the first two Test matches, even though they lost the series 3-0. In India a few weeks ago, Australian morale soared when they easily won a one-day series, and Hughes must have felt the worst was over.

If he thought so, if he thought his enemies had changed their opinion or forgiven his ‘treachery’ of 1977, he was sadly mistaken. This season Ian Chappell and his followers have pounded away, and in the end Hughes resigned. Probably his resignation was another erratic decision, another of the infuriatingly hurried acts which have prevented Hughes leading Australia as well as his board of control had hoped.

Probably Hughes was a poor captain, and did not deserve to survive so long. But his resignation had little to do with his weaknesses. It was the result of a concerted campaign. The favoured son had finally been crushed.

First published in The Sunday Times, December 1984