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The Insider- Book Review: Golden Boy by Christian Ryan

by Paul Ford Republished from Outright #47

On a family holiday to Australia we caught a train from the centre of Sydney and an incredibly steamed cricket fan from Wagga Wagga sat beside us on his way home after a day in the scorching sun of the SCG.


We got talking - and he got slurring - and in a parting shot of kindness he produced a red leather cricket ball signed by none other than Kimberley John Hughes and handed it over to me. Ever since then I have had the former Australian cricket captain and eighties icon on my radar -  a player often remembered only for breaking down as he resigned as Australian captain at a press conference at the Gabba in 1984.


My Kim Hughes radar was triggered again recently when a mate at work said he’d picked up a great book entitled ‘Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the bad old days of Australian cricket’, penned by Christian Ryan. It was named by Wisden as probably the greatest cricket book ever written.


I hunted it down in a Wellington CBD secondhand bookshop (a mere $20) and this biography is one hell of a read: enthralling, booze-laden, and a searing “unairbrushed” insight into the savage macho culture of cricket in an era punctuated by the Packer revolution and fallout from rebel tours to South Africa.


Hughes famously did not contribute to the book, but instead left Ryan to his own devices to unearth the back story independently, unconstrained by the protagonist’s memory. And Ryan does this meticulously, interviewing more than 70 people who knew Hughes – childhood friends, coaches, international and provincial team mates, selectors and coaches.


At its heart it is a profoundly sad book as we see Hughes’ carefree talent and love for the game relentlessly attacked and ultimately dismantled by the three alpha male rock stars of Australian cricket of the time: Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell. Hughes regarded the trio as absolute legends of the game but this reverence was never reciprocated: instead they saw him as out of his depth, over-confident and not sufficiently focused on winning.


They were outwardly hostile to him as their unwanted national captain. “I honestly would prefer to play under several other players, who I think would do a better job than Kim,” Marsh said in one interview. One of those other players, of course, was none other than himself.


Lillee was brutal to Hughes too – even when they were on the same team, in the nets preparing to play Test matches for Australia. Left-arm spinner Murray Bennett regales a story of Lillee meandering in and “unloading off a few yards” until Hughes arrived for his net session. Now Lillee switched gears, extending his run-up and steaming in to unleash bouncer after bouncer in succession aimed at Hughes’ golden locks.


Paceman Geoff Lawson tells a similar yarn in a pre-Ashes net session: “He nearly broke Kim’s arm. Just ran in and bowled lightning and Kim had to go off for an X-ray…the day before the Ashes started.” Extraordinarily, Hughes never complained or became embittered: he just got on with the job at hand as best he could, outwardly displaying confidence and ploughing on regardless.


Ryan makes it clear Hughes was a polarising character: endearing to some, but a cocky prodigy to others. One writer put it neatly: “Insecure but arrogant, abrasive but charming – in Hughes' character were the seeds of his own destruction.”


Kim knew he was good. He was a terrific, aesthetically pleasing, attacking, risk-taking entertainer of a batsman who only partially fulfilled his promise. More annoyingly, he’d loudly predict at team meetings that today was the day he would be scoring 200 before lunch. And he apparently loved to drive fast bowlers, dropping down on one knee then yelling out: “Shot! That’s four on any ground in the world.”


It’s a cricket book that will make you question the dressing room cultures you have been a part of over the years. It will make you realise how brutal grown men can be to grown men. And it will remind you that sometimes talent is a curse because of what it triggers in others. ‘Golden Boy’ is a poignant book, magnificently written. Highly recommended.


Paul Ford is the co-founder of the Beige Brigade and one-seventh of The Alternative Commentary Collective. He still has the Wagga Wagga ball in his cricket memorabilia collection.


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