A fortnight ago even Australians knew little about Phil Hughes. He could have walked down the streets of Melbourne without attracting attention or swum on Bondi Beach without causing a stir. Now, he is a talking point across the land.
Apart from the abundant runs he has scored and the unexpected victories he has helped to secure, he has reminded his fellow Australians that it remains a raw country that has always put its faith in youth. At any moment, a bloke with a liberated mind might emerge from the bush. His promotion was praised because everyone was tired of the grumpy old guard and wanted young punks to be given a chance in the traditional way, before cricket got bogged down by worthy 30-year-olds and the age of professionalism.
Now this perky southpaw, born in November 1988, has become the youngest batsman in the world to have scored two hundreds in the same Test, beating by 200 days the record set in 1930 by the great West Indian, George Headley. It is an astonishing achievement from a fearless young man who represents a revival of the old Australian strain of the blue-collar lad from the backwaters prepared to have a crack – a line some thought outdated in a time of academies, analysis and so forth.
A pound to a penny says he will open the batting in the Ashes, and score runs as well. The England bowlers will be unable to believe their eyes. They can hardly help but observe the supposed flaws in his technique, the jumpy back-foot game, the lashes outside off-stump, the upper cuts, the sudden thrashes at spinners, the refusal to get behind the ball, the outrageous room he gives himself. They'll blink and think it cannot work. Throughout his first match and deep into his second, the Proteas thought the same thing. Not until he built a composed second hundred did they realise the frailty was an illusion and by then it was too late.
Phillip Hughes is a tough, pesky 20-year-old lefty from the sticks who bats and lives by his own lights. He scores an awful lot of runs in any company but, in every other respect, he is an ordinary lad, with a short haircut, an earring, a fondness for clothes, plenty of mates, no tickets on himself and a love for rugby league so strong that he spent his youth crash-tackling boys twice his size. Rest assured, he is not remotely as scared as he seems. Such was his courage that his rugby coaches feared for his well-being.
Armed with a willow, Hughes casts aside the commonplace and enters another world, becomes astute, bold, tenacious and resilient. South Africa threw everything at him and he shrugged, smiled and continued belting the ball around. He's known worse back home in his previously forgotten town in inland New South Wales. Towards the end of his second hundred, a bowler stood at the top of his mark and called out, "Is this bloke deaf?"
Already it has been quite a journey for the young fellow. He was raised on a small, subsistence banana farm in remote Macksville. It is rugged country with poor soil and his parents struggled to make ends meet. From the start, though, they saw that their younger boy was mad on the game. It is not unusual in Australia. Increasingly, cricketers are coming from outstations – rural areas where they lack alternatives. Moreover, Australia has a strong tradition of fine bush cricketers: Doug Walters, Bill O'Reilly and Donald Bradman himself. These players had to stand out just to get noticed.
From the start, Hughes Jnr meant business. Many dads hang a ball in a sock so that sons and daughters can practise their strokes. Greg Hughes had to provide three balls before his lad was satisfied. When darkness fell across the back veranda, he'd come indoors, put on his full cricketing regalia and rehearse his shots in front of the mirror until his Italian mother – Greg is no fool either – announced that supper was ready. Barely a passing thought was given to homework. In that regard, Hughes has much in common with another scrapper, Ricky Ponting.
Although struggling, Mr Hughes found money for kit and petrol, and gave the boy the best chance he could. Phil climbed through the ranks, always a year or two ahead of the pack. As well as opening the batting, he kept wicket. Throughout, he batted in his own way, reached his own conclusions. It had been the same with Shivnarine Chanderpaul in his fishing village in Guyana. For that matter, it was the same with Simon Katich, now Hughes' opening partner. Katich shuffles around like a shy teenager at a dance. None of them catches the eye, none of them seems secure, all of them bat for a long, long time. All of them know their games and the exact location of their stumps.
Hughes kept outscoring his peers. At 16, he went to Sydney and was put in the hands of Neil D'Costa, a local coach with his own school, stable and way of thinking. He was also an outsider: his parents had moved to Sydney from Chennai in their twenties. D'Costa has also coached Michael Clarke and has now been nabbed by the impressive academy being set up in Nagpur. D'Costa says that Hughes was not as extrovert as Clarke but he was impressed by his determination.
"Lots of boys love to play," he says, "he loved to train." He asked Hughes to "give me everything you've got" and said, if he did, he could replace Matthew Hayden. D'Costa was with his charge when news arrived of his selection for the South African tour. Hughes remained calm and remarked: "Now it begins."
Hughes just kept batting. He has always found it easy to concentrate because the game flows through him. Before long, the entire cricket community was talking about him. It works that way in Australia. And then his chance came. After the debacles of 2008, the selectors were looking for young blood.
The team had fallen into a slow decline and the time had come to start afresh. Seizing the moment, Hughes drew attention to himself by dominating both innings for New South Wales on a dodgy track in Hobart. Afterwards, the bowlers said he had not batted that well. Then Matthew Hayden retired. With debate about his replacement at a pitch, Hughes went to Newcastle and grabbed his opportunity with a big hundred, followed by a vibrant 80. The message was clear.
He was ready. Selection followed. Macksville was agog. The publican promised to give away free beers when he was batting for his country. I'll give you a tip. He'll go broke. But Hughes fell for a duck in his first innings, playing an errant shot, the sort that would embarrass a lesser man. Yet it did not upset the youngster. He bounced back with 75 in the second innings. The hosts remained non-believers. His game seemed flirty, almost feckless. Even the first-innings hundred in Durban did not silence the sceptics. Even when he reached his second century, the South Africans looked dumbfounded. But it was a carefully constructed innings interspersed with sudden, shining shots. Then, on the fourth morning he cut loose as Australia chased runs, producing tennis smashes, driving Dale Steyn back over his head for six and rising off the ground to thrash a blazing off-drive.
It was an astonishing and original exhibition – Hughes is much harder and smarter than he seems. In his own inimitable way, he is going to score loads of runs. He's figured out the odds, knows the angles, trusts his eye and likes batting. His technique may be homespun but it works. He has fast eyes, feet and wits. He bats in the old Australian way. He defends on the back foot, goes forward only to attack. And he's determined to play his part in a fresh, earthy and vibrant Australian team.
From the Ashes...The new Australia
1 Simon Katich
Sturdy opener who is harder to shift than red wine. Scores square of the wicket and concentrates hard
2 Phil Hughes
High scorer with homemade game. Gets runs from cuts and extra-cover drives. Has helped to rejuvenate the team
3 Ricky Ponting
Had protected the old guard too long. Best fieldsman in the world. Has suffered lapses of concentration this season
4 Michael Clarke
A fine, creative batsman. More restrained since regaining his place. Sore back is his biggest problem
5 Michael Hussey
Suffering first bad patch. Edgy character but still averaging 55 in Test cricket. Not to be written off
6 Marcus North
Steady, efficient left-hander. Useful finger spinner. Sells his wicket dearly. Captains his state, Western Australia
7 Brad Haddin
Attacking batsman with best straight drive in the game. Confidence rising, but still prone to wicket-keeping errors
8 Mitchell Johnson
Best bowler in the team. Has strength, stamina, pace, bounce and away cut. Averages 29 with the bat so almost an all-rounder
9 Peter Siddle
Strong and willing pace bowler from the bush. Has plenty of pace and can move the ball away from the bat
10 Ben Hilfenhaus
Strong, fiery Tasmanian with an outswinger and off-cutter. Throws like a baseball player and bats like one as well
11 Stuart Clark
Injured all season but selectors are keen to get him back for Ashes. His bowling style resembles Sarfraz Nawaz
12 Bryce McGain
Accurate leg-spinner with good googly but may lack bite off pitch. Best in the country but can he step up?
13 Andrew McDonald
Has played three Tests and won the lot. Looks lightweight with the bat and bowls like an old county pro
14 Brett Geeves
Able to hit the pitch hard and give the ball a thump. Selectors are losing patience with Shane Watson and might give him a go
15 Chris Rogers
Competing with Phil Jaques for spot as back-up opener. Scores heavily, but suffers from inability to integrate