David Hookes: Unfulfilled promises, incomplete life


David Hookes, born May 3, 1955, was an explosive batsman whose talent never quite lived up to the expectations. Like his career, the life of the man also ended rather needlessly with plenty of promises unfulfilled. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career and the tragic death of the South Australian cricketer.

At the pre-match cocktail party, the battle-scarred England skipper Tony Greig had taunted the blonde 21-year-old debutant. “Not another Australian left-hander who cannot bat.” The response had been instant, unexpected and biting, “At least I am an Australian. Not a f**king import.”

On the third morning, with 218 ex-Ashes stalwarts looking on from the stands of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, David Hookes had walked out to bat in the second innings of the Centenary Test. Soon, Tony Greig was floating up his experimental off-breaks. A flighted looping delivery was lofted over mid-off. A rank long hop was swung around to the leg boundary.  A half-volley was driven through the covers. A short one on the legs was whipped to mid-wicket. And finally an overpitched offering dispatched to the cover fence — five boundaries in an over. After Derek Underwood dismissed him for 56, Greig approached Hookes again, this time with a beer, and asked whether he could join him for a drink.

A peak too soon

One must remember Greig was the recruiting officer for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. With those five boundaries off the man himself, Hookes had become an overnight sensation. Additionally he was young and blonde, with vibrant and violent stroke-play — just the heart-throb to add to the glamour quotient of the planned parallel circuit. With just one Test behind him, Hookes was snared. He did not set the cricket grounds of England on fire in the Ashes series that followed, but the bait had been laid and irrevocably bitten.

Of course, there was no doubt about the fascinating talent that sloshed around in him. The month before he was chosen for the famous Test match, his uncoached bat had stirred up a storm in Australian cricket with 17 days of run-making. Batting for South Australia at Adelaide, he had scored five hundreds in six innings — all at breakneck speed. Against Victoria, he hit four sixes in an over during a scorching 163. He followed it up with centuries in each innings against Queensland and New South Wales, becoming the first man to achieve this in back to back matches since Tom Hayward in 1906.

However, it was perhaps a bit too early for him to join the best cricketers of the world in the World Series. He did consider backing out, but was thwarted by Packer’s virulent threat, “David will spend the rest of his life paying me back what I sue him for.”

It was not the best that could have happened to Hookes. He did perform reasonably in the World Series, with 770 runs at 38.50 in the 12 SuperTests. For Australia, only the Chappell brothers managed better figures. He fought courageously against Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Wayne Daniel to score 81 at RAS Showground, Sydney, before a bouncer from Roberts crashed into his jaw. From the batting point of view, the blow realigned his features — despite his name, the left-hander seldom played the hook shot again.

The exposure to extreme pace was perhaps beneficial, if painful — but the career of Hookes took a hit. Elsewhere in Australia the official Test team was engaged in a five-match battle against India, with Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar weaving a magic of spin around the home batsmen. If Hookes had faced these wizards of slow bowling, he could have matured into a finished product of formidable prowess. He missed out on the opportunity.

If the World Series decision makers had not been partial to his debonair and dashing style and had not overlooked another talented blonde young batsman in the form of Kim Hughes, Hookes might have been the one leading Australia in 1979-80. As things turned out, Hughes led a depleted Australian side to India to do battle with Dilip Doshi and Shivlal Yadav on the turning pitches. Hookes missed out on that education as well.

As a result, when he returned to the Australian side, he batted with purpose against the West Indian pace attack following which he suffered a knee injury. But, when the team toured Pakistan, he was hopelessly out of his depth, managing just 10 runs in 6 First-Class innings, falling to the guiles of Iqbal Qasim twice to bag a pair in the only Test he played.

The 34-ball hundred

Dropped from the side, he struggled for a couple of years before emerging as the captain of South Australia in 1981-82. Under his leadership, the state won their first Sheffield Shield title in six years.

The following year saw the rejuvenation of Hookes the batsman. And the glory was back in full blaze during the showdown against Victoria in October 1982.

Incensed by Victoria captain Graham Yallop’s decision to extend the innings till the end of the second session on the fourth and final day, Hookes promoted himself to open the innings with Rick Darling. The ask was a seemingly impossible 272 in 30 overs.

Hookes had already hammered 137 in the first innings, including a hundred between lunch and tea. However, now, the late declaration had left him bristling with violent intent.

The first ball from Peter King was pulled high over midwicket, onto the roof of the members’ stand. The innings that followed was carnage. Hookes raced to his fifty in 17 minutes and had posted his hundred in 43 minutes off 34 balls with 17 fours and 3 sixes.

Glen Chapple and Mark Pettini have bettered the record since then, getting to their respective hundreds off 27 balls, but in both cases the bowling had been contrived and farcical. The effort of Hookes remains the fastest First-Class hundred with serious bowling on offer. The aggressive Darling was on seven when Hookes raced past his hundred.  There were some 400 spectators when the South Australian innings began and by the time the match ended there were about 4,000. Opening bowler Rod McCurdy was hit for 88 runs in 12 overs.  South Australia did not win, but the point was made.

It earned Hookes a recall to the Test side, and half-centuries followed in Perth, Brisbane and a couple of them in Melbourne. In the two fast paced knocks during the nail-biting Melbourne Test Hookes unfurled the hook shot again, bringing them off in style again Bob Willis, Ian Botham and Norman Cowans.

Change of destination

Hookes was appointed vice-captain to Greg Chappell when Australia toured Sri Lanka. In the inaugural Test between the two countries at Kandy, Hookes smashed 143, including a hundred in a session for the fifth time in seven months. Unfortunately, it would be his only century in Test cricket.  And that was his last peak in the international scene.

After a mediocre World Cup in England, Hookes was visibly pedestrian against West Indies in their backyard. As Gideon Haigh writes, Hookes “had always been a first-class destroyer of second-rate bowling — something about which he had few delusions.” The West Indies tour actually exposed him.

And following this he was crazy enough to criticise Kim Hughes and his captaincy in public with his own form being less than ordinary. It was hardly surprising when he lost his place in the side.

He was recalled a couple of years later and played four more Tests, but could not manage to get back among runs.

There is an interesting story around the final axe that fell on Hookes. The batsman had just come out of the shower at Brisbane after a World Series Cup game against India, when he found Greg Chappell, then national selector, chatting with Wayne Phillips, the wicketkeeper batsman, and an employee of Ansett airlines. At the end of the discussion, Phillips pointed towards Hookes’ gear, and the airlines man tore off the luggage tag that read SYDNEY and replaced it with one that said ADELAIDE. Hookes instantly knew that he would not be travelling with the team. His career was over at the age of 30, his 23 Tests amounting to 1,306 runs at a very unimpressive average of 34.36.

Hookes himself admits in his autobiography Hookesy: “I have much to be modest about. I suspect history will judge me harshly as a batsman because of my modest record in 23 Tests and I can’t complain about that.”

Modest or not, Hookes did have a way to channelise disappointment into positives. On that very evening at the Gabba, he proceeded to ask journalist Mike Coward about the record for most sixes in a First-Class innings. When informed that it was 15, he declared, “I’ll beat that this weekend.” Hookes fell short, slamming 10 of them in his 243 against New South Wales, scored in 254 balls. But, it was a lesson in attitude.

Hookes continued to pile runs at Adelaide, relishing the short square boundaries, hitting 306 in 1986-87 against Tasmania while adding an undefeated 462 with Wayne Phillips for the fourth wicket. However, he hardly ever saw eye to eye with the administrators, and was sacked as the skipper of South Australia in 1990. He played for three more seasons, but his international days were long over.

Second coming and untimely death

In 1995, Hookes, along with former Aussie Rules footballer Gerard Healy, launched his Sports Today programme on station 3AW, Melbourne. It became immensely popular and marked his second coming as a star. Hookes was known for his candid, often outrageously frank views. It was on this programme that Hookes disclosed the involvement of Shane Warne and Mark Waugh with ‘John the bookmaker’. Within a year after starting SportsToday, Hookes emerged as an instantly recognisable media figure, hovering over cricket grounds in a helicopter, providing his quaint bird’s eye views.

Seven years later, Victoria appointed him their coach — and Shane Warne was one of the players who wholeheartedly supported the decision. Hookes approached the new job with plenty of zeal, investing in youth and courting unpopularity by turning his back to several veterans including Colin Miller and Damien Fleming. The team was on the way to their first title in 13 years when Hookes died on a January evening in 2004.

It was the age old celebration of a win — over old state South Australia. The team was drinking at a pub in St Kilda. After an altercation, a 21-year-old bouncer, Zdravko Micevic, allegedly threw a punch at Hookes, causing him to fall and fatally hit his head against the road.

Former teammates Wayne Phillips, Darren Lehmann and South Australian Cricket Association physio John Porter issued a joint statement on his death: “The tragic and utterly needless death of David Hookes has left us shocked and horrified. We have lost a close and valued team mate but most importantly a friend who was always there for us in both our cricket and personal lives.”

A memorial service was held at the Adelaide Oval, the scene of so many of his triumphs. It was attended by all the members of the Australian, South Australian and Victorian cricket teams. Over 10,000 people turned up to pay their respects.

When Hookes used to retire for lunch or tea intervals during an innings, he would leave his bat leaning against the stumps, with the cap and gloves beside it, indicating that he would be back. Fittingly at his funeral, Hookes’s bat was placed against the stumps, with his cap and gloves lying close by.

Only this time, Hookes would not be back to resume his innings.