Merv Hughes: 'I'd hate the opposition and try to kill them'

Brian Viner Interviews: Australia's moustachioed master of sledging's dark arts (who also happens to be a current selector) believes that a bit of spite can be a help against any player... particularly when the Ashes are at stake

Australia's patron saint of sledging does not wish to get drawn into a discussion concerning Marcus Trescothick's withdrawal from England's Ashes campaign, save to say that "losing a player of Trescothick's calibre dampens the contest a bit. As a selector, you're always looking to get your strongest team on the park".

It is nevertheless safe to assume that Merv Hughes, who in June 2005 succeeded Allan Border as one of Australia's selectors, would not have expected the men he picked to show much sympathy for Trescothick's emotional fragility had England's opening batsman decided to tough it out. After all, Hughes is himself cited as one of the principal reasons for the sensitive Graeme Hick's failure to perform against Australia in 1993. So if the forthcoming contest is dampened by Trescothick's departure, it is further dampened by Merv's crocodile tears.

Our conversation takes place over the phone: for him it is 1.15am, and he has just returned from a cricket function after a long day watching Victoria against Tasmania in the Pura Cup match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I tell him that I normally do these interviews face to face, so can he give me some mental image of where he is?

"Mate, I'm at home in the north-west suburbs of Melbourne, in my lounge with my feet up on the couch." And a stiff nightcap in hand? "No, I've been on the iced water tonight. I tend to take more of the non-drinking options these days. And I'm old school, if I haven't got anyone to drink with then I tend not to drink."

I ask him whether there he has any cricketing memorabilia around him? "Mate, I'm glad you asked me that. On my mantelpiece I have two replicas of the Ashes urns from 1989 and 1993. I'm looking at them now. And there are a few nice pieces of Waterford crystal up there as well."

And how about the old moustache, which I fancy I can hear bristling against the mouthpiece? "Mate, it used to be black and bushy, and it's still bushy, but there aren't many black hairs left. Quite a lot of them turned grey during the Ashes tour of 2005."

It must have come as some consolation to Hick, and to all those English batsmen who down the years had been verbally lacerated by Hughes, that he should have been part of the Aussie selection panel disconsolately watching Michael Vaughan lift the Ashes. Not for the 2005 Aussies a replica urn like those on the Hughes mantelpiece, nor for Hughes the satisfaction of being involved as both player and selector in an Ashes victory. Not yet, anyway.

As for the nasty verbals, it wasn't as if he ever propelled them off the field of play. Indeed, in Mike Atherton's superb autobiography Opening Up, there is a revealing passage about Hughes and the whole business of sledging. During the sixth Ashes Test at the Oval, in 1989, Atherton was singled out by Hughes, who "snarled at me constantly through his ludicrous moustache ... I couldn't make out what he was saying, except that every sledge ended with 'arsewipe'. I smiled and shrugged and saved my energy." After the match he made a point of socialising with his tormentor. "I always feel that if there is an opponent who is trying to intimidate you, it helps to get to know him. In a way, it helps to humanise him. When I got to know Hughes I found him extremely affable, in a cuddly toy sort of way, and that helped me in our battles on the field. Afterwards I was able to laugh off his sledging."

We'll come back to all that, not least because Glenn McGrath and Stuart MacGill have already opened up the sledging war with onslaughts on Ashley Giles and Monty Panesar during England's match against New South Wales and I want to know what Hughes thinks of that, now he's part of collar-and-tie officialdom. But first things first: I assume that he's brimming with confidence ahead of the Brisbane Test?

"I'm confident, yes, but to be honest I was confident going into the 2005 series, and that didn't work out too well. Mate, I think it's going to be one hell of a series. I won't make a prediction because I did that last time and I got burnt a bit. I've learnt to be a little bit more circumspect. But it's going to be a fantastic series."

He adds that he is looking forward to hunkering down with his fellow selectors Andrew Hilditch and David Boon to choose the team for the Gabba, and it occurs to me that with Boon at his shoulder, there probably hasn't been as moustachioed a selection committee since Lord Harris and his eminent Victorian colleagues picked W G Grace. The difference being that these hirsute gents are plotting England's defeat.

"There are certainly a few players in the mix," he says. "Phil Jaques has been scoring a phenomenal amount of runs, although if you pick someone you've got to drop someone, and Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden have pretty impressive records over the last five or six years. On the bowling side Stuart Clark, Mitchell Johnson and Shaun Tait have a pretty good claim, and obviously we've been looking at [all-rounder] Shane Watson. It certainly helps if you have a batsman in the top six who can bowl, particularly if he can bowl like Shane Watson. But the big question is: is he good enough to bat at No 6 for Australia in Test match cricket?"

Does he subscribe to the common Australian view that Andrew Flintoff is such a good bloke he could almost be an Aussie? A snort makes its way down the line from north-west Melbourne. "Mate, most Aussies love him. They wouldn't mind him playing centre half-back in their AFL side. Look at him. He's an intimidating figure, like Botham was. He has a real go every time he steps on the park. He's a great batter, a great bowler, fantastic in the field, he looks like he's enjoying himself. Why wouldn't we love him?"

Because he's a Pom? "Ahh, mate, it doesn't work like that."

None the less, Hughes is known to disapprove of the friendships between certain Australian players and certain England players, although he denies the line attributed to him that Ricky Ponting's team lost the Ashes last summer partly because of too much pallyness between the sides, a line that Justin Langer, for one, strongly resented.

"Mate, I was misrepresented. I wasn't talking about the two teams, I was talking about individuals. I admit that the friendship between Shane Warne and Kevin Pietersen was a bit of a concern to me, although I can't question Shane Warne's performance. The bloke took 40 wickets."

The bloke Warne also claims Hughes as one of his best friends, or used to; one wonders whether their relationship has cooled since Hughes made his displeasure known regarding Pietersen. Either way, Merv won't drop the charge. "I stand by what I said. Shane Warne wants to outdo his friends even if he's playing tic-tac-toe, so that's not a problem. What I'd add is that Warne v Pietersen is a great contest, but it doesn't have the same vibe as Warne v [Darryl] Cullinan, for example, because there's no spite in it. But then not everyone shares my view on how to play cricket. Some people don't have to hate the opposition to motivate themselves. I'd hate them and try to kill them. To me that's easier than to like them and maybe back off in crunch situations."

All of which brings us back to sledging. Hughes looms large in the annals of that dark art, although at least he could leaven his abuse with wit. At Adelaide in 1991, Javed Miandad, for reasons best known to himself, called Hughes "a fat bus conductor". A few balls later Hughes dismissed him, loudly calling out "tickets please" as Miandad trudged past him on his way back to the pavilion. His exchanges with Robin Smith and Viv Richards, to name but two, were rather less wholesome, and should probably not be reproduced in a family newspaper. Most of these stories, he assures me, are true. So I ask him whether he applauded the verbals directed by McGrath and MacGill at Giles and Panesar?

"Mate, I think sledging's underrated." A chuckle. "No, mate, what I really think is each to their own. Some players work on the basis that verbal intimidation is good, others don't. At the end of the day if you're worried by what an opposition player is saying, then you're not focused on your job. If MacGill and McGrath were getting themselves fired up for the contest, I don't have a problem with it. That's why I did it, which people don't understand. If I was getting into a batsman it was to convince myself that this was the worst bloke in the world and I didn't want him out there. That usually happened at innocuous times, when the game was going through a little flat patch. I had to get up for the contest, and my way of doing that was to take it out on the batsman."

Such as Graeme Hick. "Yeah, I targeted certain players and Hick was one of them. His performance in '93 suggests that it was not a bad plan."

Hughes took 31 wickets in the 1993 Ashes, second only to the debutant Warne, who took 34, and who, in his 2001 autobiography, recalled of that tour that "in a terrific bunch of guys I think Mervyn Gregory Hughes stood out for his influence on and off the field." As a debutant himself in 1986, Hughes had not had quite the same impact, indeed his most notable contribution was to hole out to Gladstone Small off the bowling of Phil Edmonds, the wicket that ended the fourth Test at Melbourne - before lunch on the fourth day, glory be - and secured the Ashes for England. However, it was also the wicket that, in a sense, ignited almost two decades of Aussie dominance. The captain, Allan Border, immediately told his players that he no longer wanted to be seen as a good guy who lost; he would rather be "a prick" and win.

"That's where it all changed. We went to Sydney with a much tougher attitude, won in Sydney, and it went on from there."

It is no coincidence that some of Australia's toughest players from those years of dominance ended up as selectors, Border himself (though he recently stepped down for a second time), Boon and Hughes being the obvious examples. I ask Hughes whether it surprised him to get the call, not least because as a player he had not always seen eye to eye with the men running Australian cricket.

"It surprised a lot of people, but not me. I had put the process in place. When I stopped playing first-class cricket I captained a lower grade club side in Melbourne, and I did that to get involved in selection. From there I went to Victoria Under-19s as bowling coach and a selector, then I became a selector with the full state squad. The process took four or five years, even though a lot of people thought it happened overnight. Just like when I was a player, I want to be involved at the highest level possible."

And spending so much time looking at cricketers, does he ever muse that perhaps they don't have quite as much fun as he and his team-mates had? "I reckon they do, although I did notice that the 2005 tour was sponsored by Travelex. When we toured we were sponsored by XXXX."

Which seems an appropriate note on which to let Merv get to bed.

Merv Hughes was speaking to promote Sky Sports' exclusive live coverage of the Ashes, which includes mobile and broadband for the first time

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