When dreams come true

Golden Boy by Christian Ryan was recently named the Wisden Cricket Monthly best cricket book ever.

Here’s a book review from australianrules.com.au published in 2010…

WESTERN AUSTRALIA is a big State but it’s a small place. In 1974, when I left Kalgoorlie-Boulder to attend Graylands Teachers’ College 600 kilometres away in Perth, I knew all about the rising star batsman Kim Hughes.

I knew he was the next big thing as a cricketer. I didn’t know he was the president of the student council at Graylands, but that fact brought him into sharper focus.

There were a few stars at Graylands. Gerard Neesham was a near Olympian in water polo and top amateur footballer. I remember predicting he’d one day win the Sandover Medal. East Perth’s immovable full-back Gary Malarkey was there and so was his young teammate Ross Glendinning. A friend recently reminded me that I’d predicted Hughes would play for Australia. That wasn’t a hard call to make.

Hughes was active and personable. Like Neesham he was friendly even to “first years” like myself. I followed his cricket career closely. I was at the WACA in 1974 when he brought up his initial statistic in first-class cricket – a great catch in the gully off Dennis Lillee while acting as a substitute fieldsman. Twelfth man seemed to be his spot for a while even though his eventual success at the highest level seemed assured.

Hughes became frustrated and took off to South Australia in search of a first-class gig. The move didn’t work, he didn’t make many runs for East Torrens, couldn’t break into the SA team and he returned home. Hughes made a century on debut for WA in November 1975. He made his Test debut in 1977 and by 1978 he was captain of Australia. It reads like a dream but as Christian Ryan reveals in his biography of Hughes, Golden Boy, it was something of a nightmare.

Hughes refused to speak to Ryan for this project and he asked others to do the same. While he often professed that he’d one day tell his story Hughes appears to have forgiven those who tormented him during his cricket career. He likes to be liked and we can only assume that he does not want things to be stirred up. Lillee and fellow Western Australian Rod Marsh didn’t co-operate with the author but many did and what they said is incredible.

World Series Cricket happened straight after Hughes made his Test debut. It gave Australian cricket an almighty shake. Lillee and Marsh were at the forefront. Hughes was not involved. He either refused to take part or wasn’t asked. It depends who’s telling the story.

When cricket got back to normal the Australian captaincy was a bit of an issue. Sometimes Greg Chappell was captain. Sometimes, particularly on trips to far-flung places, it was Hughes. When Greg Chappell wasn’t available Lillee thought Rod Marsh should be the captain. And Rod Marsh thought Rod Marsh should be captain.

Lillee, later president of the WACA, expressed himself about Hughes in those days by bowling bouncers at him in the nets. Continuously. Graeme Wood, later CEO of the WACA, recalls a net session at the Gabba: “I remember Kim getting hit, got him right near the elbow, sort of, the forearm. He had to get some ice on it and there was doubt over whether he’d play. Not the great morale booster you need before a Test.”

Spinner Murray Bennett was stunned during his first time in the nets with the national team when every ball Lillee bowled to Hughes was short: “For a bloke of his stature I thought it was way out of line. I didn’t think it was very impressive at all.”

Lillee and Marsh took things further by showing little respect for their captain on or off the field. Mike Whitney recalls seeing Marsh shake his head and sigh after Hughes set the field, and then moving fieldsmen: “Now, that’s completely usurping the captain’s authority,” fast bowler Whitney said. One of the questions Golden Boy raises is whether Australia might have won back the Ashes in England in 1981 if the Australian team’s two most experienced players had supported their captain. The evidence is stacked against Lillee and Marsh. It is a damning consideration.

Away from the team Ian and Greg Chappell also chipped away at Hughes. His tearful departure as Test captain came in 1984. Two Tests later he made a pair against the West Indies in his last game for Australia.

Hughes played some of finest innings ever. His incredible batting saved the soggy centenary Test at Lords in 1980 from sliding from memory; his Boxing Day Test century against the full-throttle West Indies in 1981 is, according to Ian Chappell, Australia’s best innings post-World War 2. And those at the WACA who saw Hughes in his first outing for WA have never forgotten it.

Golden Boy would be uncomfortable reading for Hughes. He would not like to be reminded of his “dressing room hi-jinks”, particularly something he picked up from the men at Subiaco-Floreat Cricket Club. He may reflect that his ambition to be Australian captain was his undoing and, along with his impetuosity as a batsman, it left him with a rather modest record. Hughes will — I know because he has done so often on radio — point out that a lot of his batting was against a West Indies attack that makes almost any other bowling seem friendly. It’s a valid point.

I doubt he would reflect on his decision to take blood money to buck the fight against apartheid in South Africa. I recall a 60 Minutes interview in which Hughes suggested Australians and others shouldn’t be pointing the finger at South Africa. If someone came to Australia and told us how we should be running our country he would, he said, tell them to “suck eggs”.  It wasn’t one of his great moments.

In one of the most powerful paragraphs in this book, Ryan points out the charmed run many of the members of the so-called rebel teams to South Africa received on their return to Australia. Hughes, Terry Alderman and Carl Rackemann were on ABC radio, Trevor Hohns became Australia’s chairman of selectors, Greg Shipperd and Steve Rixon became high-profile coaches, Rodney Hogg tells yarns loudly at sportsmen’s nights, Tom Hogan became a WA selector… other countries weren’t quite so forgiving.

Golden Boy also explodes one of Australian cricket’s great myths. Here’s how the story goes:  1. Aussie cricketers used to play for nothing. 2. Kerry Packer came along and paid players lots to play World Series Cricket. 3. WSC and the Australian Cricket Board got back together, Channel Nine got the TV rights, and cricketers finally got paid what they were worth (and more). It’s a history we’ve heard often enough from the Channel Nine cricket commentators.

It’s also, according to Ryan’s version in Golden Boy, bullshit. Kim Hughes as captain, with help from teammate Geoff Lawson, fought a long battle for decent pay for his players. The money, it seemed, rather than flowing into the dusty ACB coffers, was now being raked off by Packer’s PBL.

Kim Hughes hasn’t faded away. He’s a regular on ABC Radio and shared a breakfast spot on SportFM with fellow former Test player Wayne Clark His radio contributions are as mercurial as his batting. Once he suggested AFL boss Andrew Demetriou was a bloke with a high opinion of himself. He rails against the inability of current WA batsmen to play off the back foot and about the money earned by second-rate players. He can be very funny and sometimes almost incomprehensible. Once he said players from the Sub-consonant couldn’t handle the bouncing ball.

Golden Boy is, for all its toughness and straight shooting, a sympathetic look at Kim Hughes. It has been thoroughly researched and is brilliantly written with a strong narrative drive. I came out of it happy that my boyhood dream of playing cricket for Australia never came true.

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