By SB Tang
It’s after lunch on the third day of the 2010 Ashes Boxing Day Test. Australia’s opening pair of Shane Watson and Phil Hughes are cruising along at 5.4 an over in Australia’s second innings. The ever unpredictable Melbourne sun has come out for the first time during an Australian innings in the Test match, the pitch looks placid and Australia have reached 49 without loss after 9 overs. Even Jimmy Anderson looks unthreatening, going for 5.4 an over.
For the first time in the match, Australian fans had grounds for cautious optimism. I certainly did, believing, for the first time in the Test, that Australia might have some scintilla of a chance to save the match and keep alive the hope of regaining the Ashes with victory in the fifth and final Test at the SCG.
England captain Andrew Strauss makes a double bowling change, bringing Graeme Swann on for Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan on for Anderson.
Runs, which until then had flowed from the flashing blades of Watson and Hughes as easily as raindrops from the sky in an English July, immediately dry up as Bresnan maintains a suffocating line and length. True to his reputation, Bresnan somehow finds something in a flat-looking pitch which other bowlers could not. His first over is a maiden.
This sudden, unexpected drought of runs makes Watson and Hughes nervous. The crowd can feel it too. The relaxed chatting in the grandstands, so natural and prevalent just minutes ago, peters out.
The very next over, the inevitable happens: a wicket falls.
Watson, anxious to keep the scoreboard ticking, pushes a ball from Swann straight to Trott at cover and calls Hughes through for the single. Hughes hares down to the keeper’s end but his fate is already sealed: Trott calmly collects the ball, throws it — hard and flat — straight into Prior’s gloves, and Prior whips the bails off.
Hughes is run out for 23 off 30 balls.
I watch as he trudges off. It is a long walk back to the dressing room on the vast expanse of the MCG. His bat trails bumpily along behind him, like a disobedient, leashed dog being dragged for a walk. Officially, there are 68,727 people in the MCG but, at that moment, the place sounds empty, the only noise coming from the Barmy Army. Hughes looks even shorter than his Cricket Australia listed height of 5ft 6in, like a boy who has accidentally wandered into an unwelcoming, cavernous coliseum and been swallowed whole.
Hughes’s wicket turned out to be the Cecil Terwilliger designed rubber stopper in the creaky dam that was Australia’s batting order that summer. Its removal unleashed a torrent of wickets — Australia lost 5 for 116 to finish the day on 6 for 169 and were bowled out for 258 the next morning. England won the Test by an innings and 157 runs, went 2-1 up in the five match series and extinguished any possibility that Australia could regain the Ashes.
To really rub salt into my already septic wounds, Hughes was and is one of my favourite cricketers. For the first time that summer, he was looking solid and set for a decent Test score. Eight Tests later, he was dropped from the Australian XI.
I was gutted.
That summer, I spent — some might say “wasted” — a day at the beach vociferously defending his place in the side against attack by a friend of a friend. In my eyes, he is the eternal target of “unsupported hypotheses” concerning batting technique, the innocent victim of received wisdom as to how to bat.
I suppose, like Professor Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog, I entertain grandiose, bourgeois delusions of being “the enemy of unsupported hypotheses”; however, I hasten to add that I do not spend my spare time surgically grafting the testes and pituitary gland of a recently deceased man onto a stray dog in the name of science.
The unsupported hypothesis frequently levelled at Hughes is this: his unorthodox, homespun batting technique renders him unsuitable for Test cricket. This hypothesis presumes that technique is the primary factor in determining whether a batsman will succeed at Test level.
A batsman’s job is simply to score runs. And Australian cricket history — modern and ancient — is littered with prominent examples of country batsmen with distinctly unorthodox techniques who, like Hughes, have scored heavily at first-class level, but had their technique ridiculed as they tried to make the step up to Test cricket, only to go on and thrive in the face of snide put downs from technical fetishists.
Sir Donald Bradman — with his turned-in bottom-hand grip and predilection for playing the hook and pull shots — was deemed “unsound” by Percy Fender, writing before Bradman’s maiden Ashes tour of 1930.
Matthew Hayden’s batting “style” was decried as “almost completely half front-foot” by former Australian selector John Benaud, writing in 1997 when Hayden’s seven Test career looked finished after he missed out on selection for that year’s Ashes tour.
On Phil Hughes’s maiden Ashes tour in 2009, The Times went so far as to label him “technically incompetent”.
The empirical truth is that Hughes — like Hayden and Bradman before him — scores runs. Of the first-class variety. BHP acquisition worthy mountains of them. More than any other Australian batsman his age.
When Hughes made his Test debut against South Africa in March 2009, his first-class batting average was 65.39. He had scored five centuries, 11 half-centuries and a total of 2485 runs in just 42 first-class innings.
Compare these figures with those of his top-order contemporaries, Shaun Marsh and David Warner. Marsh’s first-class batting average when he made his Test debut against Sri Lanka in September 2011 was 37.71. In 112 first-class innings, he had scored just six centuries, 20 half-centuries and a total of 3658 runs. Warner’s first-class batting average when he made his Test debut against New Zealand in December 2011 was 60, but that impressive looking figure was derived from a limited sample of 17 first-class innings.
Whereas Hughes offers the hard currency of first-class runs, Marsh can only offer the collateralised debt obligation that is aesthetically pleasing technique. Warner, at least, offers the medium term note programme of destructive potential.
What has become of Hughes since his axing from the Australian Test XI in December 2011?
Hughes has returned to his old routine: scoring runs. Right now, he is scoring them in droves for Worcestershire.
He currently sits third in the batting averages for the English domestic 40-over competition — in seven innings, he has scored 420 runs at an average of 105 and a strike rate of 83.33, with two centuries and three fifties. He sits top of the batting averages for the English domestic T20 competition — in eight innings, he has scored 402 runs at an average of 100.50 and a strike rate of 126.81, with four fifties. He has only played five first-class innings in the first division of the County Championship thus far this season, racking up 206 runs at an average of 41.20 with two half-centuries.
On Wednesday, in a T20 quarter-final against Yorkshire at Headingley, Hughes scored 80 not out off just 53 balls.
Two shots will live long in my memory.
The first was a straight drive. The ball, delivered by Yorkshire’s impressive 20 year old right-arm quick, Moin Ashraf, was speared in full, straight and at Hughes’s feet. It was millimetres away from being a perfect yorker. Millimetres was all the room Hughes needed: he whipped his bat down at lightning speed, like Thor wielding his hammer, and struck the ball laser-straight back down the ground. Long-on and long-off converged on the rocketing ball, but it bisected them with surgical precision. For a moment, it was as if the two fielders were the closing hangar doors of a hostile alien mothership and the white cricket ball was a hijacked flying saucer (piloted by Will Smith) escaping through the ever diminishing gap just in the nick of time.
The second shot was played two balls later, off the final ball of the same Ashraf over. Fine leg was up to save the single (and keep Hughes off strike the next over) because everyone knows that Hughes is a predominantly off-side player, right?
Hughes’s riposte: he stepped outside his off-stump, knelt down and comfortably lap-swept the ball over short fine-leg. Four.
The first shot demonstrated that Hughes has rediscovered the virtues which brought him all those mountains of runs when he was but a teenager — blinding bat speed, fearless driving and an unwavering belief in his simple but effective technique. The second shot proved that Hughes has successfully worked on what has always been an obvious weakness in his game — his on-side play.
Back in the mid-90s, there was an iconic TV ad which did nothing more than inform the viewer: “Grant Hill drinks Sprite”. At the time, Hill seemed destined to inherit Michael Jordan’s throne. And he would have, but for a series of injuries which threatened his career and his life.
Back in 2009, Phil Hughes was the officially-anointed successor to Matthew Hayden at the top of the Australian batting order. And he still could be.
Perhaps, one day, there will be an ad which simply states: Phil Hughes scores runs. And, if given a fair go by a selection panel and a captain who truly believe in him, he can score them in bucket loads for Australia.