Phil Hughes: The Matt Hayden of Our Age

Posted on August 23, 2014


Note: this piece was published on The Guardian Sport Network on 23 August 2014.

By SB Tang

Once upon a time, there was a left-handed opening batsman. He was born in a small country town in one of Australia’s northern states and grew up on a remote farm, dreaming of playing cricket for Australia. He broke into his home state’s Shield side at a young age. Immediately, he began piling runs onto the Australian selectors’ table, great big bulging sackfuls of them that had been scored predominantly through the off-side. From that very first Shield season, his case for national selection was — empirically at least — irrefutable.

But refute it the Australian selectors did. For you see, the young batsman occupied an extreme end of the physical spectrum for a professional batsman and that extreme in physical size, combined with his bush upbringing, produced in him a heterodox batting technique that some on the Australian selection panel doubted could withstand the rigours of international cricket, causing them to consistently overlook him in favour of batsmen of inferior performance. Even when they did give him a run in the Australian XI, it was never an extended one — he was always the first to be dropped, whilst those aforementioned batsmen of inferior performance were given opportunities of greater quality.

But he would not be deterred. Every time they dropped him, he went back to Shield cricket and harvested an even greater bounty of runs. They dropped him from the national contact list altogether. Still, he kept scoring runs. Still, he kept improving his game, never content to just rest easy on the natural strengths that brought him Shield runs as easily as the sun produces heat and light. When he first entered the Shield arena, he didn’t have a pull shot. So he developed one. Pretty soon, his pull shot became one of the strengths in his game.

I know who you think that I’m writing of — Phil Hughes. And you’d be right, but not entirely right, for the foregoing paragraphs also accurately describe another Australian batsman — Matt Hayden.

Hayden was raised on a peanut farm in Kingaroy, Queensland; Hughes on a banana farm in Macksville, New South Wales. Hayden broke into Queensland’s Shield XI three days after his 20th birthday and scored 1028 first-class runs at 54.10 in his debut season; Hughes broke into New South Wales’s Shield XI 10 days before his 19th birthday and scored 559 first-class runs at 62.11 in his debut season. Hayden is a muscular 6 foot 2 inches tall and broad of shoulder; Hughes is a diminutive 5 foot 6 inches short and narrow of shoulder. Hayden’s height and muscularity produced a batting technique that one critic labelled “almost completely half front-foot”; Hughes’s lack of height produced a batting technique that appeared to revolve around scurrying away towards leg in order to create space to scythe balls through the off-side.

Hayden compiled his very first 1000-first-class-runs-plus Australian season in his debut summer of 1991/92 and kept churning them out thereafter. But, by the close of that decade, he had only played seven Tests, as the likes of Matthew Elliott, Greg Blewett, Michael Slater and Mark Taylor were preferred to him by the Australian selectors. One of Hayden’s seven Tests — his Test debut at the Wanderers in 1994 — was as a last minute replacement for a virus-ridden Taylor. The other six were played under a captain (Taylor) who never fully believed in him, was a direct rival for an opening berth and had been offended by Hayden sledging him in the Australia v Australia A one-dayers in the summer of 1994/95, and an Australian selection panel which had at least one member — John Benaud — who, in 1997 when Hayden’s Test career looked over after he missed out on selection for that year’s Ashes tour, had openly admitted (in writing) to not rating Hayden’s “almost completely half front-foot” batting “style”.

Throughout that long, dark decade of ex-communication from the Australian XI, lived out in the obscurity of Shield and county cricket, two men never stopped believing in Hayden, two men backed him to the hilt when most of the country had forgotten about him — Steve Waugh and Allan Border.

By late 1999, Hayden hadn’t played for Australia in over three years. But he kept himself busy that Australian winter plying his trade (successfully) for Northamptonshire on the county circuit, out-of-sight and out-of-mind of the Australian media, fans and, seemingly, selectors. Then, out of the blue, he received a call from Steve Waugh (then the Australian vice-captain), urging him not to give up. As Hayden later recalled in his autobiography: “We chatted away about nothing much and then he dropped a line like, ‘Keep going — you’re not far away.’ It was just the sort of encouragement I needed.”

Border was no less supportive of Hayden during his years in exile from the Australian team:

AB was quite a paradox, but when it really mattered, he was with me. After he became a columnist for News Limited in the mid-1990s, he made a point of trying to lift my profile. He wrote a piece saying he was fed up with people questioning my technique and that the word “orthodox” only meant the way “most people” did something, not “the way it had to be”. He used himself as an example, saying some English critics had pronounced that there would be no way he’d survive at Test level with such a home-spun technique. An epic 17-year Test career proved them wrong. And he didn’t just support me in print. In casual visits to press boxes, he’d tell reporters, “off the record”, “You can’t tell me that if a bloke’s good enough to open the innings and average 60 in first-class matches at the Gabba, he’s not good enough for Test cricket. I just don’t buy that.”

Eerie isn’t it?

Replace the phrase “60 in first-class matches at the Gabba” in the above passage from Hayden’s autobiography with, say, “50-odd in first-class matches in Australia in an era of green, seam-friendly pitches and quality quicks” and Border could just as easily be talking about Phil Hughes today. Indeed, Border does make very similar, supportive public remarks about Hughes. This January, after Hughes had spent yet another summer out of the Australian team churning out hundred after hundred at Shield level, Border opined that Hughes had “been badly treated in the past” and is “just so far in front of any other contender it’s not funny, so I’m hoping they’ll take Hughes on the plane [for then upcoming tour of South Africa].” Last July, after Hughes’s unbeaten 81 and world record 163 run last wicket partnership with Ashton Agar turned the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge in Australia’s favour, Border said: “We can’t forget about him [that is, Hughes], he was batting under all sorts of pressure. He trusted Ashton but blossomed through that innings. It was sensational stuff. I am really happy for Hughes, he batted superbly, was resolute in his defence but played some shots.”

Hayden only (finally) got a fair, extended go in the Australian side in the early 2000s when there was a change of regime in the corridors of Australian cricket power that swung the balance of selectorial opinion in his favour. Taylor retired in 1999. Steve Waugh ascended to the captaincy and Border became a powerful selector. The rest, as they say, is history. Hayden was restored to the Test XI in March 2000. He failed to flourish instantaneously, averaging just 27.50 in his first six Tests back, but, unlike in the ’90s, the Australian selectors remained patient. Hayden rewarded them with 8089 runs, including 29 hundreds, at an average of 54.65 in his next 90 Tests.

In the past decade, Hughes has found himself in an almost identical position to Hayden in the ’90s. Hughes put together his first 50+ average first-class season in his debut summer of 2007/08 and has been consistently producing them since. But he has yet to receive a fair go in the Australian Test XI, having been dropped thrice, only one of which could be empirically justified. Despite being by far the best performed young batsman of his generation, Hughes has never played more than three consecutive home Test matches. That fact alone does unspeakable violence to the Australian notion of a fair go, especially when one considers the age and performances of some of the Australian batsman who have been given the opportunity to play more than three consecutive home Test matches during Hughes’s career — Shaun Marsh, a 31-year-old with a career first-class average of 35.72, and Chris Rogers, a 36-year-old who has now played 13 consecutive Test matches since his recall for an average of 29 in live-rubbers. But then, that disturbing statistic is not without precedent in the annals of Australian cricket — Hayden went the entire ’90s without playing more than three consecutive home Test matches.

Like Hayden before him, two of Hughes’s strongest supporters in the face of this persistent selectorial injustice are Allan Border and Steve Waugh. In the lead-up to the 2013 Ashes tour, Waugh said: “I like the look of Phil Hughes, he’s got something deep within him that makes him a long-term Test player”. After Hughes’s unbeaten 81 at Trent Bridge, Waugh told The Advertiser precisely why he rates Hughes so highly: “He has got that desire and fight in his belly and that desire to score runs which is something he was born with. He has character. He is a tough cookie. I am a big Phil Hughes fan, he doesn’t always look the best but that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day it is how many runs you score and not how you look.”

Again, the parallels with Hayden in the ’90s are downright eerie. Here’s what Waugh wrote in his 1997 Ashes tour diary after seeing Hayden, playing for Hampshire against Australia after being left out of Australia’s touring party, make a second ball duck: Hayden has a “hunger and desire few other players possess”. Thus, Waugh stated confidently that Hayden’s time would come.

However, Hughes’s case can be distinguished from Hayden’s in one crucial respect: the level of competition provided by their respective contemporaries. Whereas the young Australian batsmen preferred to Hayden throughout the ’90s — Blewett, Slater and Elliott — all possessed outstanding first-class records of their own (albeit not quite as good as Hayden’s), the middle-aged batsmen that are currently being preferred to Hughes in the Test XI can only boast mediocre career first-class records — Alex Doolan is a 28-year-old with a first-class average of 37.59; Shaun Marsh is a 31-year-old with a first-class average of 35.72.

Growing up in Australia in the ’90s, I never thought that I’d see an Australian batsman suffer as much injustice at the hands of the Australian selectors as Hayden did throughout the course of that decade. It saddens me to say that I was wrong. Hughes has, relatively speaking, suffered even greater injustice than Hayden did because the performance gap between Hughes and his competitors for a spot at the top of the Australian batting order is far greater than the performance gap between Hayden and his competitors ever was.

Phil Hughes deserves to be opening with David Warner in both Australia’s Test and ODI XIs right now. That would be the correct decision, not just from the perspective of individual natural justice, but, most importantly, from the perspective of team balance, keeping in mind that the objective must be, as it has always been, to build the next great Australian cricket team.

As far as the ODI side goes, Australia is in the fortunate position of having a wealth of one-day top-order attacking talent — David Warner, Shane Watson, Phil Hughes, Aaron Finch and Shaun Marsh are all in the running for a top three berth. Warner and Watson are the two automatic picks. Warner’s form across all three formats of the game has been consistently excellent for the better part of a year now. Watson has, ever since he started batting at the top of the ODI order in June 2008, consistently been one of the best limited-overs batsmen in the world. His bowling is more than handy too.

That leaves just one spot in Australia’s ODI top three, which is being contested by Hughes, Finch and Shaun Marsh. That last remaining spot must go to Hughes. Cricket is a team sport. Balance and complementarity is required in both the batting order and the bowling unit. With two out-and-out six-hitting destroyers in Watson and Warner already in the ODI top three, the final spot must go to someone with a proven ability to graft, to batten down the hatches and bat through an innings on a dodgy wicket, as well as accelerate and slog with the best of them when the match situation calls for it.

Hughes clearly satisfies those criteria. Finch and Marsh do not.

In his brief 20 match ODI career to date, Hughes has already scored two ODI hundreds against a proper Test-playing opponent, both of them match-winning. The second — an unbeaten 138 off 154 balls against Sri Lanka at Bellerive in January 2013 — is particularly noteworthy because it was scored on a juicy, green pitch on which no other Australian batsman passed 34 and single-handedly salvaged the series draw for Australia. Oh, and earlier this month, Hughes became the first male Australian batsman to score a List A double-hundred, smiting an unbeaten 202 for Australia A at Marrara Oval in Darwin against a South Africa A attack containing two bowlers with international experience. (And yeah, the ground was small and the match was relatively meaningless, but that’s still some achievement, especially when one pauses to consider the sheer quality of top-order limited-overs batsmen that Australia has produced over the years: Matt Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Mark Waugh, David Boon, David Warner and Ricky Ponting. None of them managed to reach 200 in a List A match; all of them got the opportunity to play in List A matches at the Adelaide Oval.)

Aaron Finch is a magnificent ball-striker whose domestic form in both limited-overs formats has been outstanding for several seasons now. But he is a hitter whose very nature only permits him to bat in one gear, the very same gear that both Warner and Watson want to bat in. Accordingly, playing all three of them at once severely unbalances the Australian ODI top-order and creates, as was amply demonstrated during Australia’s disastrous 2014 World T20 campaign, an unacceptably high propensity towards rapid top-order batting collapses. Moreover, Finch’s level of performance in his 23 ODI matches to date has simply not been good enough — excluding matches against non-Test playing opposition, he averages just 29.71.

Thus, it came as something of a surprise to hear the Chairman of the National Selection Panel, Rod Marsh, say, at the press conference earlier this month announcing Australia’s 14-man squad to tour Zimbabwe for an ODI tri-series, that Finch “has been extremely successful” in ODI cricket. Marsh is one of the greats but, respectfully, it is simply wrong to describe an opener who averages less than 30 in ODIs against Test-playing opposition as having been “extremely successful”.

That erroneous opinion led Marsh to frame the decision to exclude Hughes from the initial 14-man touring squad as “a choice between Steven Smith and Phillip Hughes”. Many Australian fans seemed to accept that conceptualisation of the relevant choice and began attacking the inclusion of the all-rounders Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell at Hughes’s expense, thereby missing the real issue — that the relevant choice had been misconceptualised in the first place, creating a false dichotomy between Hughes and Smith.

Hughes is an opener whose role is to bat through the innings. In limited-overs cricket, Smith, as he has shown consistently for New South Wales, the Sydney Sixers and various IPL franchises over the past several years, is a middle-order finisher whose role is to intelligently manage his team’s innings and shepherd them home, adapting his pace to the peculiar requirements of each team innings that he’s presented with. Thus, reducing an important selection call to “a choice between Steven Smith and Phillip Hughes” makes about as much sense as reducing a decision as to the final ingredient to include in a fruit salad to a choice between apples and bananas.

Smith deserves his place in the squad on the basis that he is the batsman best qualified to perform the middle-order game-manager/finisher role once performed with such distinction by Mike Hussey and Michael Bevan, an important role that has gone unfulfilled ever since Hussey’s unexpected retirement. Maxwell deserves his place in the squad on the basis that, over the past 12 months, he has proven himself to be, in the limited-overs arena, one of the world’s premier middle-order batsmen.

Neither Smith nor Maxwell would ever compete with Hughes for a spot in a well-balanced ODI XI. Hughes’s real competitor was Finch. And Hughes’s ODI record is superior to Finch’s — Hughes averages 36.66 from 20 ODIs, all of them versus Test-playing opposition.

And as for Hughes’s final competitor for an ODI opening spot, Shaun Marsh?

His form in ODIs has been consistently mediocre for years now. Since January 2010, Marsh has averaged just 34.34 at a strike-rate of 73.97 against Test-playing opposition, despite batting predominantly in the top three. He hasn’t scored an ODI hundred versus a Test-playing opponent for over three years now. He doesn’t belong anywhere near an Australian ODI XI.

Turning to the Test XI, Warner’s current opening partner is Chris Rogers. Roger is nearly 37-years-old. He has now played 13 consecutive Test matches since his recall and is averaging 29 in live-rubbers.

Yes, really.

But wait, why then is his Test average a perfectly respectable looking 38.14?

Because he’s averaged 69.86 in dead-rubbers since his recall. That’s not my subjective opinion; that’s an empirically verifiable fact.

During the back-to-back 2013–14 Ashes series, Rogers’s live-rubber average (28.42) was roughly the same as Hughes’s (27.66), and Hughes suffered the handicap of only playing in two live-rubbers compared with Rogers’s six. Yet, bizarrely, it was the now soon-to-be 37-year-old Rogers, rather than the now 25-year-old Hughes who was given a 13 consecutive match run in the Test XI including, crucially, five consecutive Test matches at home. That’s two more than Hughes has ever been allowed.

A cursory examination of Hughes’s 26 Test record makes three things clear about the quality of the opportunities that he has been afforded by the selectors.

Firstly, when the selectors do give him a go in the Test XI, it’s never an extended one. His stints in the side have been as brief as one Test, for example, in Wellington in March 2010 when he scored an unbeaten 86 to help secure a 10 wicket Australian victory.

Secondly, even if the selectors do give him a run in the Test XI, it tends to be in the most hazardous conditions possible for a young Australian batsman. Most of Hughes’s 26 Tests have come overseas (17 to be precise) and a disproportionate number of those Tests (seven) have been on the subcontinent — always the toughest place for a young Australian batsman to bat.

Thirdly, the selectors delight in moving Hughes up and down the batting order like a yo-yo. He has been batted in every single position in the top six except for number five.

That’s no way to treat Australia’s best-performed young batsman over the past decade. But then, the selectors’ treatment of Australia’s Test opening partnership as a whole has hardly been more consistent over the past five years. They have, if memory serves, gone through no less than seven different opening combinations during that period: Simon Katich and Phil Hughes; Simon Katich and Shane Watson; Phil Hughes and Shane Watson; Phil Hughes and David Warner; Ed Cowan and David Warner; Shane Watson and Chris Rogers; and Chris Rogers and David Warner.

David Boon is credited with coining the modern Australian cricketing phrase that the top three are the “engine room” of the Australian batting order. Without a strong, well-functioning engine room, there can be no truly dominant Australian cricket team. The last great Australian Test XI possessed an engine room that would’ve been the envy of a Super Star Destroyer — Hayden, Langer and Ponting in their prime. Unfortunately, over the past five years, with six opening partnership changes courtesy of the Australian selectors, the only engine that the Australian Test engine room has resembled is that of a 1975 Trabant.

Openers are different from all other batsmen. They exist in fixed pairs, whereas other batsmen exist as individuals, coming in at the fall of a wicket to meet a different partner every time. Thus, a Test opening partnership is akin to a good marriage — a long-term union of two complementary human beings. It’s no coincidence that most of the great Australian Test teams have possessed an opening partnership whose three word name has entered the Australian lexicon: Ponsford and Woodfull, Simpson and Lawry, Taylor and Slater, Hayden and Langer. A long-term, successful opening partnership is practically a sine qua non for the birth of a truly great Australian Test team.

Warner and Hughes are that partnership for the next great Australian team. Every possible historical and empirical indicium we have available tells us so. Like great opening partnerships before them, Hughes and Warner get along well on and off the field. Despite being nearly two years younger, it was Hughes who, as the established NSW Shield opener, helped Warner with his first tentative steps into the first-class arena. Warner has not forgotten it. He has been vocal and public in his support of Hughes. When Hughes, like so many young Australian batsmen before him, went on a rough trot during his maiden Test tour of India in 2013, Warner leapt to his defence: “Phil is in a patch at the moment where he isn’t scoring as many runs as he would like, but I’m sure if the selectors stick by him he will come good. He is the type of player who always puts runs on the board, especially when he scores a hundred he scores a big hundred.” Earlier this month, when Hughes was surprisingly left out of Australia’s initial 14-man ODI squad to tour Zimbabwe, Warner insisted that Hughes was still in with a chance to make Australia’s World Cup squad. After Hughes celebrated his late call-up, as a replacement for the injured Watson, to Australia’s ODI squad for their tour of Zimbabwe with yet another unbeaten double-hundred for Australia A in a match versus South Africa A, this time a first-class encounter, Warner tweeted: “Well played to my little mate Phil Hughes, what can we say what a champion. 700+ runs @100 well done buddy. 26th first class ton awesome!”

On the field, much like Hayden and Langer, Warner and Hughes’s southpaw batting styles complement one another. Hughes is stronger square of the wicket. Warner is stronger straight down the ground. Both are quick between the wickets. Both are brisk scorers, but Hughes is adept at dropping anchor and playing a support role when his partner is on fire. That is something that Warner cannot and should never be compelled to do, for it goes against the very natural instincts that make him one of the most destructive batsmen on the planet.

Hughes and Warner should be Australia’s long-term opening partnership in both Test and ODI cricket, with Watson at three in the ODI team and either Rogers or Alex Doolan as a stopgap three in the Test team until the next generation of Australian batsmen (see, eg, Jordan Silk, Nic Maddinson, Joe Burns and Kurtis Patterson) are ready to go.

Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke. What do these four men have in common, apart from an exemplary record as an Australian Test captain and batsman?

They have all, publicly and unequivocally, expressed the belief that Hughes (armed with that unorthodox technique of his) is more than good enough to succeed at Test level.

With a cumulative total of 43,719 Test runs and 127 Test hundreds between them, it’d be fair to say that Messrs Border, Waugh, Ponting and Clarke are world-leading experts on the subject of Test batsmanship. So I guess we could listen to their opinion on the question of Hughes’s suitability for the Test arena. Or, we could listen to the true sages of our age: anonymous and pseudonymous internet commenters and tweeters who enjoy asserting, without an iota of logic or empirical evidence, that Hughes’s technique is rubbish and that he’s not good enough to make it at Test level.

Of course, no-one has a monopoly on knowledge. Thus, in theory, the pseudonymous internet commenters could be right about a cricketing matter and the combined wisdom of Border, Waugh, Ponting and Clarke could be wrong. In theory. But then, as that great philosopher of my generation, Homer (Simpson) observed: “in theory … in theory, communism works.