Hughes proves his taste for struggle despite losing first battle
The little smile on the face of Phillip Hughes was replaced, all too soon from an Australian perspective, by a grimace. But being able to see the funny side of a booming bouncer from Andrew Flintoff – and the clearly uttered promise of several more where that one came from – said plenty about Australia's new young opener.
Hughes lost a brief but wonderfully entertaining four-over battle against the leader of England's attack and there is a fair chance he could finish second best a few more times this summer if Flintoff remains fit. When it comes to the Ashes, though, this 20-year-old will surely last the course, firing his share of bullets along the way.
It has been a tough week or so in the life of a diminutive left-handed batsman from the country town of Macksville, New South Wales. After sweeping all before him while playing for Middlesex at the start of this season (574 runs in five championship innings at an average of 143.50) and then having made a decent enough start to his first Ashes tour by scoring 78 against Sussex, reality bit Hughes on the bum at Worcester.
Or, rather, Steve Harmison hit him on the hand, not once but twice, during Australia's encounter with the England Lions. One of the game's fastest bowlers had exposed a chink in the Hughes armour which South African speed merchants Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel supposedly identified but were unable to exploit a few months earlier.
"I'm sure he will go away and work on putting it right against the bowling machine," said Harmison after bouncing out Hughes for two single-figure scores at Worcester and doing his chances of an England recall no harm at all in the process. "Phillip Hughes is no mug, that's for sure."
He certainly isn't. When Hughes made his Test debut against South Africa in Johannesburg four months ago, he became Australia's youngest new boy since fast bowler Craig McDermott strode onto centre stage 25 years earlier. And what did he do? Make a four-ball duck, that's what.
No wonder, then, that South Africa believed they had him sussed out. When the series moved on to Durban, however, Hughes gave a bit back – scoring 115 and 160 as Australia won a three-match series which, despite his slow start, international cricket's newest century-maker finished with 415 runs.
Yesterday, in his first Ashes innings, Hughes moved rapidly to 28 with Stuart Broad, in particular, giving him too much room to flay boundaries through the off-side. Goodness knows what Harmison thought if he was watching, but at least his best mate made sure all that hard work at Worcester did not go to waste by immediately finding much more challenging lines and lengths.
The good news for Hughes, though, is that he dealt with Flintoff's bouncers well enough not to be dismissed by one of them, and that little smile, when the first one came his way, suggested to everyone that there was no place he would rather be than slap bang in the line of fire – facing one of the world's most intimidating bowlers with a capacity crowd baying for blood.
Only Hughes will know for sure whether he was badly enough unsettled by Flintoff's line of attack to play the back-foot forcing shot which brought about his downfall on 36. Perhaps more significantly, though, he had been restricted to eight runs in 24 balls by Flintoff and an improving Broad after lunch before bottom-edging a catch behind, suggesting that frustrating a young man who generally bats in a hurry could be the real key to English success this summer.
Whatever happens, though, Hughes believes he is where he belongs: at stage one of a long Test career.
Alec's Ashes: Facts from the front line
Ken Mackay was nicknamed 'Slasher'; as his innings at Lord's in 1956 proved, the moniker was ironic. In 270 minutes he scored 31, but allowed others to flourish as the Aussies took a lead of 343 – and went 1-0 up in the series.
From Alec Stewart's Cricket Companion (Corinthian, £16.99). To order a copy for £15.29 (inc P&P) visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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