Forever Young

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Like other games that lend themselves to statistical reduction, cricket can be brutally efficient in judging its players across the years. There's usually no need to look beyond the weight of runs scored and wickets taken to assess a player's proper place in the cricketing pantheon. But averages speak of substance rather than style. A talented showman and a dour plodder can be mediocrities on the numbers grid, although the first might have soared as often as he flopped, while the second never got off the ground. David Hookes, who died on Jan. 19, was not a cricket legend on traditional measures. After all, Hookes played 23 Tests, scored 1,306 runs at an average of 34, and hit a solitary century. But he became a legend in the vernacular Australian sense. Entertaining on the sporting field and fearless as a commentator, Hookes left his mark on the public.

Hookes's death following a violent incident outside a Melbourne hotel was overplayed by adrenaline-charged journalists, but the reaction of cricket lovers has been profound. For many Australians aged 35 to 45, "Hookesy" was a childhood sporting hero (a spunk for women of all ages), announcing his abundant talent and displaying his surfie looks in a spectacular way during the season of 1976-77. After a string of high scores for South Australia, the 21-year-old made his national debut against England in the Centenary Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The blond, left-handed batsman tonked opposing captain Tony Greig for five consecutive boundaries on his way to a handy 56. That sequence is the indelible memory of a marvelous contest; in our minds Hookes remains forever young.

A few months later, Hookes signed up with the rebels during Kerry Packer's cricket revolution. In the "Come on, Aussie, come on" era of Super Tests and colorful clothing, he became a drawcard for Australian fans. Hookes walked onto the ground with a simple plan: to entertain and give value to the punters who had paid $5 to come to the ground. That may sound quaint nowadays, but back then sincerity could not be faked in front of the zinc-creamed kids who packed the country's pulsating sports arenas. Or the TV viewers in its lounge rooms. As cricket began transforming television, the beer-heads at home with a tinny in their hands yearned for the big hits of Viv Richards and Hookes and the chin music delivered to ducking batsmen by Jeff Thomson or Andy Roberts. Hookes was a key—and sexy—part of cricket's assault on the home.

Together with bouncy pitches and energy-sapping heat, Hookes seemed to be a constant in Australia's summer game during three decades; as player, commentator and coach he dazzled and bemused the public. Like Allan Border, who was born in the same year, Hookes was a bridge between two glorious periods of Australian cricket: old enough to have played with the Chappells, Lillee, Marsh and Walters, young enough to have been on the scene with the Waughs, Taylor and Warne. Hookes had the charisma of the former era and the aggressive hunger to win of the latter. In some ways, he was too flashy for the time he played in. And for today's sporting world, where cricketers babble and corporate sponsors reign, he was not anodyne enough. Unlike Border, his closest contemporary, Hookes could not manipulate his sporting gifts to suit the occasion, spread his magic consistently from match to match and season to season, or call on diplomatic skills when needed to stroke the establishment.

Hookes occupied a unique place in the game's recent history because of his desire to make his own way through the conformity of cricket and public life. As a coach and tactician he was celebrated as an original thinker. As a media professional, he spurned objectivity; he took risks and was intemperate. A South African woman who made allegations of sexual harassment against Shane Warne was described by Hookes as "a dopey, hairy-backed sheila." Last June he called on Steve Waugh to step down as Test captain—a bold statement not likely to endear him to cricket's official family or fans. His critics claimed he couldn't play spin bowling; recently, admirers of his frankness said rhetorical spin was not in his nature. Still, Hookes once smacked a century for South Australia from 34 balls against Victoria; if he was savage in his judgments, he was particularly merciless in assessing his own performances. For that, and more, he was appreciated and loved, and every time summer comes around, Hookesy will be missed.