New WCW columnist Murray explains why he thinks Phil Hughes is the man for the job.
Simon Katich will miss the remainder of the Ashes series after tearing his Achilles tendon during Australia’s heavy defeat in the Adelaide test match. It is a huge blow for the tenacious 35 year-old, who might have played his last test for Australia. Katich’s logical replacement at the top of the order is his fellow New South Welshman, Phillip Hughes. Hughes has already received the public backing of Ricky Ponting. However his inclusion for the third test starting in Perth on December 16 was not a formality.
Hughes has an unorthodox batting technique. While facing fast bowlers he positions his body in line with leg stump to enable him to punch the ball behind square on the off side. His stance is also designed to give him ample room to drive the ball through the cover region. He is not afraid of hitting the ball in the air. When he swings, he swings hard, often culminating in top edged cut shots slicing over the slip cordon to the boundary.
Hughes is susceptible to quality swing bowling. An in-swinging delivery which pitches just short of a good length often entices him to cut, cramping him for room. Because of his unusual shape at the crease, he sometimes struggles to get his body behind the ball, which hinders his play through the leg side. He often fails to get his front foot to the pitch of the ball; something which he has worked on tirelessly in the past twelve months. The main criticism of Hughes’ batting, however, is his susceptibility to the short delivery.
During Australia’s tour of New Zealand earlier this year former Kiwi’s all-rounder Chris Cairns stated that Hughes would have to defy 134 years of batting convention to succeed in the test arena. While this may seem a little harsh on the diminutive 22 year-old, it is indicative of the way that he is perceived abroad.
Hughes played his first test during Australia’s 2009 tour of South Africa (he was selected to replace the retired Matthew Hayden). He made a fourth ball duck on debut in Johannesburg, flashing wildly at a wide, rising delivery from Dale Steyn outside the off stump. It was an example of Hughes at his audacious worst. However it was also a sign of Hughes’ propensity to look for runs from the very first over of an innings. He recovered in the second innings to score a gritty half century which helped guide Australia to an upset victory in the first test.
Hughes scored a century in both innings of the second test in Durban. The South African quicks – Steyn, Morkel and Ntini – persisted in bowling short to Hughes, hoping to lure him into playing the cut shot. He was happy to oblige, punching a succession of crisp boundaries through the cover and gully region. Hughes reached his century by hitting Paul Harris for consecutive sixes over long on. Hughes became the youngest player from any country to score a century in both innings of a test match. Australia won the second test and claimed the series 2-1, owing largely to the performances of Hughes and Mitchell Johnson.
Hughes signed for Middlesex at the beginning of the 2009 county season to gain some experience on English wickets in the lead up to the Ashes series. He scored 574 runs in his three first class matches, including three centuries, at an average of 143.50. Despite Hughes’ prolific numbers, his stint also enabled the English bowlers to gain a firsthand look at Australia’s secret weapon. Instead of bowling short and wide of the off stump – and playing into Hughes’ hands – Harmison, Flintoff and Anderson decided to target his upper body with the new ball.
Hughes had a poor start to his Ashes campaign. He failed to reach fifty in his first three innings. More worryingly, he was caught behind the wicket in all three innings (although Andrew Strauss’ so-called catch at Lords was contentious at best). Flintoff managed to verbally intimidate Hughes at Cardiff. Anderson dismissed Hughes cheaply at Lords when he gloved a bouncer to Matt Prior down the leg side while attempting a pull shot. Australia was comfortably beaten in the second test and trailed 1-0 in the series. After two poor tests the selectors decided to axe Hughes in favour of Shane Watson.
Hughes has played seven test matches and has scored 615 runs at an average of 51.25. He has played 47 first class matches and scored 4,164 runs at an average of 53.38, including 13 centuries and 22 fifties. These are extraordinary numbers for a 22 year-old. He was playing A-Grade senior cricket at the age of 12. He debuted in Sydney grade cricket aged 17. In his debut Shield season he scored a century in the Pura Cup final against Victoria aged 18. When he debuted for Australia in 2009 he became the country’s youngest test player since Craig McDermott 25 years ago. Hughes is a prodigious talent who is capable of opening the batting for the next ten years.
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