Hughes seeks runs to match his desire
Even as he showed near monastic zeal to remodel the game that slid him into horrendous batting trouble against New Zealand last summer, Phil Hughes did not expect to be back in the Australian Test team in the space of a year.
When Hughes walked off Bellerive Oval after being caught Guptill, bowled Martin for the fourth innings in a row last December, the 24-year-old was not alone in figuring it would be a matter of years, not months, before he returned to the national team. Yet Hughes now finds himself back at the scene of his demise for Hobart's next Test match, batting with punch in the nets ahead of the series against Sri Lanka.
This is as much a marker of how few Australia batsmen are currently scoring the requisite amount of runs to press a case for their use at international level as it is a vindication of Hughes. His numbers this year have been strong, though by no means overwhelming. The national selector John Inverarity admitted it took Hughes' 158 against Victoria at the MCG during the Adelaide Test against South Africa to convince the panel he was readier than the rest.
Inverarity and the other selectors have never questioned Hughes' desire, a trait borne out by the lengths the left-hand batsman has travelled to further his batting. In the intervening 12 months, Hughes has skipped the inaugural Big Bash League to spend more time tinkering with his technique, played with promise for Worcestershire in England, moved from New South Wales to fresh surrounds in South Australia and made a confident start to the domestic summer. If Hughes is not quite a new man at Bellerive this week, he is striving mightily hard to improve on the old one.
"I knew it was going to be tough to get back, no doubt," Hughes said. "I had to score heavily for South Australia in the Sheffield Shield to get back here. It happened quite quick. I feel like I've done a lot of work behind the scenes. I feel like my game's in a lot better order now than 12 months ago or two years ago. The confidence is high. The big reason [for that] is scoring runs for South Australia in Shield cricket.
"Overall, I feel a lot more settled and very calm, knowing that I have been in this environment before. I knew I had to make sacrifices as well along the way - that was definitely one, to pull out of the Twenty20 competition last year, to work on my technique and become a better player. I feel like a lot better player than 12 months ago, that's the most pleasing thing."
To quantify how Hughes is better, the most salient evidence is presented in the form of his array of strokes, now expanded greatly to include a powerful pull shot and more enthusiastic flicks, nudges and drives through the leg-side. This has reduced Hughes' reliance on his pet cut shot and cover drive, which both remain in his locker, though they are not called upon anywhere near as often as previously.
Also noticeable to observers of his innings for the Redbacks is the fact that Hughes is more eager to get forward and over the ball, his weight transfer more equable to deal with the bowlers' variations in length than in the past.
Given the amount it has been discussed in public as well as among various coaches to have run their eye past Hughes over the years, it is not surprising that he is cagey about what exactly has changed. But he is happy to acknowledge that in order to avoid being cornered as he was by Chris Martin, he needed to become a less lopsided batsman.
"[The wagon wheel] is a lot different. I hit probably 70 to 80% of my scores on the off side before. I feel now that I've got both sides of the field covered," Hughes said. "That's something I had to go away and work on. My leg-side play was something big in my mind that I had to focus on. I feel now that [the changes], in all forms, have really opened up my leg [side].
"I'm free-flowing now through that side. It's just easier, when they do bowl straight that I can work off my hip and onto the leg side. I've had to do a lot of work in the nets, no doubt, because I was used to hitting through the off side, but now it comes a bit more comfortably on both sides of the wicket. It frees me up. It's about having it behind you [in your armoury], something that I didn't have 12 months ago. But I do have it [now]."
As for being back in Hobart, Hughes recognised the irony, but also the satisfaction. "This is the ground where things probably didn't pan out perfectly on a personal note," he said. "Twelve months down the track, I feel like I'm in a better place now."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here