Australia v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Hobart December 8, 2011

Pressure on Hughes to avoid the slip

With plenty of competition in the side for Boxing Day, Phillip Hughes needs runs under his belt to retain his place in the side

Phillip Hughes is a firm believer that a batsman's technique is irrelevant. All that matters is he scores runs. It sounds fine but is a theory that is unlikely to sway the majority of cricket watchers. Hughes plays with a style so unusual and uninhibited that his successes look streaky and his failures, especially the growing number of catches he sends to the cordon, appear reckless.

Hughes finds it difficult to leave the ball outside off for it is his most prolific scoring zone. Only Guns'n'Roses have a more conspicuous Slash than Hughes. But his greatest strength is also his major weakness. Opposition captains have learnt to stack the cordon with as many slips and gullies as they can and ask their fast bowlers to angle the ball across Hughes without giving him too much width.

Chris Martin claimed Hughes twice using that method at the Gabba. It could be argued he succeeded three times, for Hughes was dropped at slip the ball before he was caught at gully in the second innings. It brought to 19 the number of times Hughes has been caught by the wicketkeeper, slips or gully from 29 dismissals in his Test career. He has never been out lbw to a fast bowler.

These are difficult times for Hughes. He is the most experienced man in Australia's youthful top three, but without a significant score in Hobart he is in danger of losing his place for the first Test against India on Boxing Day, when Shane Watson and Shaun Marsh are expected to return. Usman Khawaja's reliability makes him an appealing option, while David Warner can overtake Hughes with a big innings at Bellerive.

Hughes was trusted with the opening role when Simon Katich was removed from Australia's side. Since then, Hughes has averaged 30.54. His successes in that period included 88 against South Africa in Johannesburg, when 67 of his runs came through the off side as the bowlers allowed him too much width. When Vernon Philander finally strangled him with a tighter line, Hughes was caught at slip.

His work ethic is not in question. At Bellerive on Thursday, Australia had an optional training session. Hughes spent a long while in the nets, working on his problem area. He was one of only three batsmen who turned up to an optional session in Cape Town after Australia's heavy defeat last month.

"Hughesy has been working hard for the past couple of years . . . on his technique and on the area of his game that need to improve, like all of us," the captain Michael Clarke said. "I've made it very clear to him that I think I've been caught in slips as many times as any player.

"It's an area of a lot of people's game that you need to continue to work on, especially when the ball is moving. I've always loved his work ethic. You guys continue to see him in the nets, he trains as hard as anyone and he wants to get better."

But life won't be any easier for Hughes on the first day in Hobart if Australia bat first. On match eve, the pitch sported so much grass that it looked more like a lawn-bowling green than a cricket wicket. Clearly it had not yet had its end-of-November shave.

However, Hughes has a strong record at Bellerive, where he averages 74.63 from six first-class matches. By comparison, his Gabba average is 28.50. After the Brisbane Test, the New Zealand captain Ross Taylor said he'd be very happy if Australia retained Hughes for Hobart, a comment he now says was tongue-in-cheek.

"He's a world-class opener," Taylor said ahead of the second Test. "He's still got three hundreds for Australia and a few fifties. He's scored runs against us in the past - and scored more runs than I did in the last game - so I'm sure he'll be fine."

Despite his generous comments, Taylor is sure to be confident that New Zealand can contain Hughes again. The main question is how many slips and gullies to use.

As Hughes showed in Brisbane when he was dropped one ball and caught the next, he won't stop playing the way he knows. It's a method that brought him 17 first-class centuries before his 23rd birthday. But unless it brings him runs in this match, he could be spending Christmas - and Boxing Day - at home.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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