The second coming: could Hughes be the man to reignite Australia's Ashes?
Despite his flaws the explosive batsman still has the ability to turn the series, believes Angus Fraser, who worked with him at Middlesex
Wednesday 15 December 2010
If Australia are to regain the momentum they fleetingly held during the opening exchanges of the Ashes they need to find a player who will rattle England, a swashbuckler who will knock Andrew Strauss's ever-improving side out of their stride and grab the initiative.
Mitchell Johnson, Australia's fragile and wayward fast bowler, told the world that he was the man to do just this before the series started but to date the tattoos on his arm have appeared more threatening than his bowling. Johnson may win a recall in Perth tomorrow but his bowling will need to improve significantly if he is to give England's batsmen the "hurry up" at the Waca.
A more realistic source of Australian tonic is Phillip Hughes, the diminutive left-handed opener whose initial performances wearing a Baggy Green drew comparisons with Don Bradman. Hughes' Test career began in glorious style when he scored a hundred in each innings on his second appearance for Australia 21 months ago, but since then his form has been erratic at best, disappointing at worst.
Much continues to be made of Hughes' unorthodox technique, which involves him backing away towards square leg against quick bowlers and carving the ball over or through the off side. Many experts believe his method is flawed, but as Virender Sehwag continues to show, you don't always have to move back and across your stumps to succeed in international cricket.
Such blemishes did not seem to hamper him at Middlesex where, in a remarkable six-week period in early 2009, he flogged the bowlers of Glamorgan, Leicestershire and Surrey for consecutive first-class scores of 118, 65 not out, 139, 195 and 57. After watching him bat in practice as well as in matches I realised that it was not intimidation that caused his footwork, it was just the way he played. Hughes gives himself room to maximise his scoring opportunities and his talent comes from having remarkable hand/eye coordination.
Hughes is capable of playing a brand of cricket that can energise a dressing room, and Australia's currently looks like one that could do with a few Jack Daniels and Coke. Hughes' batting is daring and risky, a combination that means he can look horrible when it goes wrong. It is also impudent, aggressive, fearless and, most importantly for Australia, uplifting. With risk, however, can come reward and watching him carve the opposition's fast bowlers to all parts is a pleasurable pastime.
Hughes cares little for reputation or match situations. If it is his day and the ball is in the slot he will, without thinking, slap it to the boundary for four. At Middlesex we were fortunate enough to witness his enviable self-belief on several occasions. One was against Glamorgan at Lord's. Hughes scored 118 in his first innings but we were in a little bit of trouble on the final afternoon of a four-day game on 31 for 3. But rather than block us to a draw, Hughes chose to attack. In one over he took Garnett Kruger, the South African fast bowler, for more than 20 runs. He finished on 65 not out and when quizzed about his approach said: "Look mate, you've got to have a bit of fun whilst you're out there." What can you say to that?
Hughes may be small but he will not be intimidated, as he showed whilst scoring 195 against Surrey at The Oval. It was an innings that nobody who was there will forget. No Surrey bowler was spared, but Hughes saved his most savage strokeplay for Andre Nel, the giant former South African fast bowler, who he slapped all round the ground.
Nel's frustration resulted in him bowling a beamer that hit Hughes on the hands in front of his face. The bowler failed to apologise or check the batsman was okay. On regaining his composure, Hughes followed Nel down the pitch without his bat in his hand. It was like David chasing Goliath with Hughes saying: 'You're weak mate, fucking weak, that's why you quit Test cricket to play as a Kolpak player because you're fucking weak.' The umpire stopped Hughes before he got close to Nel, who did not turn round to confront his opponent.
Away from cricket Hughes is quite shy, although he does possess a mischievous smile. He loves clothes and I am sure his wages from Middlesex were spent on the retail industry. Any money he had left was spent paying for excess luggage on the return flight to Australia.
Hughes' career has somewhat stalled since those heady days with us. There have been a couple of hundreds for New South Wales, who he helped to win the Champions League in India in 2009, but too many indifferent performances. Four Test appearances have netted him a further 200 runs at an average of 33.33 and he enters tomorrow's crucial third Test with a first-class average in 2010-11 of 22.33. The only highlight of the current season for him was 81 for Australia A against England in Hobart.
Is the erratic nature of his recent cricket down to bowlers working out how to bowl at Hughes, or is it due to him being distracted by off-field activities and taking his eye off the ball? It is probably a combination of the two. Yes, fast bowlers have learnt to bowl at his body rather than outside off-stump but Hughes has the ability to cope with that. More importantly, I believe his focus has erred. Even in 2008 Australia were struggling to find new stars to replace the likes of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer, and the country overreacted to Hughes' sensational start to Test cricket. In came the money, endorsements, a new agent and mixing with a few questionable characters. Out went the work ethic, desire and focus that got him to the top.
If Hughes has been putting the work in behind the scenes, which he says he has, the next few days in Perth could be pivotal in his career. It is a Test that could see him return to the path along which he once seemed destined to travel. Australia needs him like never before.
Explosive start: Phillip Hughes' career
Born 30 November 1988, Macksville, New South Wales.
Tests 7 Runs: 615 Ave: 51.25 HS: 160
* Hughes signed for state side New South Wales at the age of 18. In his debut season he scored 559 runs in seven matches at an average of 62.11.
* At the age of 19 he scored 116 in the 2008 Pura Cup final against Victoria to become the youngest centurion in an Australian first-class final.
* After being selected for the Test side for the first time against South Africa last year, Hughes scored a century in each innings at Durban, averaging 69.16 over the three Tests against the Proteas. Was named the Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year and the Sheffield Shield Player of the Year.
* Hughes played against England in the first two Ashes Tests last year but was dropped after poor scores of 36, 4 and 17 and was replaced by Shane Watson.
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