Cricket: Eccentric excels in an age of conformity: Abominable showman or priceless example of Victorian value? Martin Johnson on Australia's enigma, Merv Hughes

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HE swings it both ways through the air (and that's just his stomach); the mincing run-up resembles someone in high heels and a panty girdle chasing after a bus; his coiffeur appears to have been entrusted to an inebriated sheep shearer somewhere in the outback, and from beneath the koala bear attached to the underside of his nose, pour forth words of such eloquence ('eff off, yer Pommie bastard, the pavilion's that way . . . ') that you wonder why he is not Australia's poet laureate.

Who else could it be but Mervyn Gregory Hughes, nicknamed 'fruitfly' by his team-mates, after the great Australian pest, and currently making a thorough nuisance of himself in England's blossomless orchard. Poke fun at his figure if you like, but his figures are hard to mock, and beneath the bulging sweater beats a heart the size of Ayers Rock.

When England first ran into him, on Mike Gatting's 1986-87 tour, there was never any question that Hughes would charge through a sightscreen for the Australian cause if his captain asked him to. The doubt about his bowling, though, was whether he could actually hit one.

Not any longer. Hughes, whose one meaningful act on that tour was to supply the catch (to Gladstone Small) that handed over the Ashes on his home ground in Melbourne, has become such a vital component of Allan Border's team that, for all the headlines hogged by Alderman, Lawson and McDermott, if you asked Border to point to the main reason why Australia have never lost to England in 14 Test matches since, he would point straight to Merv's moustache.

Before Old Trafford, Hughes had taken three first-class wickets on tour at a cost of 70 runs apiece, and the fact that he was wobbling in with what appeared to be several baby kangaroos stuffed into his pouch, might have looked like good news for England. However, the Australian selectors, whose long-standing role as Hughes's calorie consultants has only just stopped short of putting up 'Wanted' posters in every pizza parlour in Victoria, have now given up in the knowledge that, cometh the big match, cometh the big man.

While the Old Trafford crowd was busy regaling him with chants of 'Sumo', Hughes responded with match figures of 8 for 151, and further underlined (as he proved by knocking over the likes of Richie Richardson and Martin Crowe almost every time they met during the winter) his capacity for taking the important wickets. Mike Gatting's dismissal to the last ball of the fourth day was every bit as influential in Australia's victory as Graham Gooch's hand-ball on the final afternoon, which was a scalp that also belonged to Hughes, whatever the entry on the scorecard.

Before the first Test, Bobby Simpson, the Australian team manager, told me: 'The bloke on our side who doesn't get any praise out here is Merv. You Poms underestimate him so much it's embarrassing.'

The fact that Hughes is deadly serious when it comes to the business in hand is borne out by his record. Before the start of this tour, Hughes had climbed to 10th in the list of Australia's leading wicket-takers with 177 from 45 Tests, and his strike-rate of a wicket every 57 balls had been bettered by only three Australian bowlers. Lillee (52), Thomson (53) and McDermott (55). Below him are some fairly useful performers, such as Lindwall, Davidson and McKenzie.

Hughes has spent a good deal of his career being underrated. He was more or less written off as a joke by Ian Chappell when he made his debut against India in 1985 (an opinion since revised) and not taken terribly seriously to begin with in Essex when he played a season in their 2nd XI in 1983, when he came over on a bowling scholarship.

Mike Denness, then captain of Essex seconds, remembers that he was 'primarily a big inswing bowler, who kept banging it in on an Australian length, and wondered why he was not a roaring success.' However, he still ended up taking 60 wickets, and Denness had few doubts that Hughes was something more than brute strength and ignorance by the time he went home again.

'Mad Merv, we used to call him,' Denness recalled. 'I presume he slept now and again, but you wouldn't have thought so. He did manage to lift me about three feet off the ground and pin me to the dressing-room wall on one occasion, but when you actually got him to keep quiet for a few moments, he did do a bit of listening.

'He wore a hideous pair of light leather boots, whatever the weather, and I'm not sure he didn't fill them up with lager when he did take them off. He fitted in very well, though, and was every bit the team man then that he is now. He is also a genuine bloke, and whatever appearance he might give off, I don't think he would know how to go on an ego trip if he tried.'

Hughes is only marginally less zany for now being 31 and recently married, and while some aspects of his on-the-field deportment leave plenty to be desired (he was fined for dissent during Australia's last home series against the West Indies) cricket is not so well-stocked with characters that it can afford to do without his sort of crowd appeal. As is the case with the Bothams and the Gowers, people come through the gate when Hughes is on the team sheet, and vacate the bar when he is on the field.

Hughes's ability to make the most of his talent also applies to his batting. A complete duffer to begin with (his first three Test innings were 0, 0, and 0) he has turned himself into a more than handy tail-ender.

You could wallpaper the Long Room with a list of England's embarrassing moments in 1989, but pretty high up there would have to be Hughes's 71 in the Headingley Test, and in New Zealand this winter he finished third in the Test batting averages.

His value to Australia is such that, knowing what pressure all that excess flab places on his suspect right knee, his team-mates are under orders to keep him occupied. Whenever Hughes gets bored, he clambers straight into the junk food, which presumably means that pizzas and ice- cream are never further from his mind than when eyeball-to-eyeball with his arch foe, Robin Smith.

Smith's duel with Hughes in 1989 partly belonged on the sports pages, but was mostly one for a theatre critic with a degree in lip-reading. Sample dialogue:

Hughes (having just nipped one past Smith's nose): 'You can't effing well bat, Smith.'

Smith (having rifle-cracked the next one for four): 'Make a good pair, don't we? I can't effing well bat, and you can't effing well bowl.'

David Gower, by contrast, has never had anything much worse than an exchange of good mornings ('maybe it's just me, even the Pakistanis are nice to me . . . ') but the sight of Smith produces a chemical reaction not dissimilar to Dr Jekyll after downing a swift half in the lab.

As it happens, Smith would be more unnerved if Hughes blew him a kiss instead. 'Actually, I love all the verbal stuff. It fires me up,' Smith said. 'But I take my hat off to Merv. He wasn't that talented in 1989, but he more than made up for it with raw pace and a big heart.'

There is just the suspicion that the snarling, bristling and swearing is all part of an act, half to psych out the opposition and half to add a few more bob on to his marketability. Hughes, however, who has already had two books written about him ('two more than I've ever read myself,' he says) and is currently writing a tour diary for another one, claims that it has nothing to do with acting.

'Nothing that happens on the field is done for show,' he says. 'Whatever I do and say, I mean.' So now they know. The next English batsman to be informed that he is a complete tosspot who can't bat at all (which, if Australia are bowling, will probably be no later than 11.05 this morning) should not make the mistake of thinking that it's nothing personal.

(Photograph omitted)