For a cricketer remembered fondly by team-mates for being quiet and self-effacing but with a cheeky sense of humour and a friendly and generous nature, Phillip Hughes, who has died a few days short of his 26th birthday, tended to announce himself spectacularly on the field.
In his maiden first-class innings at the Sydney Cricket Ground in November 2007, 10 days short of his 19th birthday, he scored 51 for New South Wales against Tasmania. The following week, in his one-day debut, he made 68 against Victoria in Melbourne. At the culmination of his debut season he became the youngest batsman to record a century in the final of the Sheffield Shield (then known as the Pura Cup) as New South Wales crushed Victoria by 258 runs, again at the SCG, in March 2008. On his Twenty20 debut for NSW later the same year, he hit 80 not out against Queensland in Brisbane.
Called to represent his country in South Africa in February 2009, he suffered a fourth-ball duck in his debut Test in Johannesburg but scored 75 in the second innings and made 115 and 160 in the second Test in Durban, which made him only the 14th Australian to record centuries in both innings of a Test match and, at just 20 years of age, the youngest. Two months later he marked his debut in the County Championship with 118 and 65 not out for Middlesex against Glamorgan at Lord’s, and in January 2013, selected to play in a one-day international for the first time, he made 112 against Sri Lanka in Melbourne, the first Australian to make a debut century in that format.
Hughes, a compact left-hander, was an unconventional opening batsman. He would crouch low at the crease and when the ball arrived would spring upwards into his shots. He had a fondness for hooking or pulling, and when the ball was wide of off-stump he would flash hard at it to good effect, often scoring handsomely over the top of gully and point. The notes on his Middlesex debut in Wisden refer to “exuberant strokes either side of point”, a rare sight from an opening batsman on April mornings at Lord’s.
It was a thrilling technique of his own making, honed during hours spent in the nets at his home town club in Macksville, 475 miles to the north of Sydney on the New South Wales coast, where he displayed such precocious talent as a 10-year-old that club officials decided to set up the club’s bowling machine at the Hughes family’s farm so that he could practise still more.
In some ways this approach to batting made him the perfect player for the modern game. Traditional opening batsmen built their game on miserly defence and textbook strokes, but Hughes had a touch of Twenty20 showmanship from the start, rarely passing up an invitation to unleash his aggressive instincts.
It was a method that could at times be a mixed blessing, enabling him to reap considerable early rewards against unwary opponents but costing him his Test place when bowlers discovered how to limit his effectiveness, as happened in his first Ashes series in England in 2009 when, having secured his place in the Australia side with a century in each of his three first-class matches for Middlesex, he was dropped after the first two Tests.
Friends of Hughes say that he would recall his childhood in Macksville with great affection. He was proud of the success his father Greg made of his farm and displayed considerable knowledge of farming methods. Yet his ambitions to play cricket at a high level were strong enough to persuade him to leave home at 16 and move to Sydney, where he completed his education while playing grade cricket for Western Suburbs, which led directly to a chance to represent New South Wales.
After his Test debut in South Africa, where he replaced Matthew Hayden in the Australia team and fearlessly took on two of the most formidable fast bowlers in world cricket in Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, he appeared to have the world at his feet, but after the loss of his place during the Ashes series his Test career never brought sustained success. Following his extraordinary performance in Durban in 2009 it was two and a half years and 20 innings before he made his third Test hundred, against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2011, and there would not be a fourth.
There were some memorable moments, not least his part in what was then a world record 10th-wicket stand of 163 at Trent Bridge in 2013, when he made an unbeaten 81 batting at No 6 alongside the debutant No 11, Ashton Agar. He lost his place again after the Lord’s Test that immediately followed, and that proved to be the last of his 26 caps, although his recent form, including a career-best unbeaten 243 for Australia A against South Africa A in August of this year, suggested another recall was close.
In Tests, Hughes scored 1,535 runs at an average of 32.65, compared with an average in one-day internationals of 35.91. He made 9,023 runs in first-class cricket at 46.51, including 26 centuries.
His death followed a blow to the back of the head suffered playing for South Australia, to whom he moved in 2012, against New South Wales on his former home ground in Sydney, witnessed by his family. Misjudging his stroke to a short delivery he was hit beneath the line of his helmet, the impact rupturing an artery and causing bleeding into the brain from which he did not recover. He is survived by his father, Greg, his Italian-born mother, Virginia, his brother, Jason, and sister, Megan.
Phillip Hughes, cricketer: born Macksville, New South Wales 30 November 1988; died Sydney 27 November 2014.