Hughes and Katich save NSW's day
New South Wales 5 for 316 (Hughes 138, Katich 96) v Tasmania
Four years ago in the 2007-08 Sheffield Shield final, Phillip Hughes announced himself as a future Test player with his first Shield hundred to help New South Wales to victory. Four years on, with suggestions that his international career was at the cross roads, Hughes made arguably his most important century to anchor the Blues on day one of this decider.
It wasn't the same Hughes that we've come to know and expect. It was a new and improved version. A mature batsman who has shelved his dashing, flashing, style for a recalibrated technique that allowed him to survive 278 balls, and compile a classy 138 on a fresh first day pitch in Hobart.
Tasmania fans might look at the scorecard and wonder why George Bailey decided to bowl when the coin fell his way. But the Blues captain Simon Katich admitted he would have done the same on a surface that had a lot of live green grass. Add to that the fact that the average first innings total in Hobart this year has been just 172, and that the side fielding first in all five matches at Bellerive this year has won, it was no surprise Bailey elected to bowl.
But the surface was harder than expected. Although it did plenty off the seam early, anything overpitched was driven without fear. Hughes and a rejuvenated David Warner set up the day with a wonderful opening stand. They put on 88 in the first 74 minutes. They played the lines and were unperturbed at being beaten on a consistent basis. But anything overpitched was punished. Warner was particularly savage on Ben Hilfenhaus, his first seven overs cost 40.
Warner looked set for another big score before Xavier Doherty was introduced. Doherty didn't produce consistent spin. But he spun two balls sharply and both claimed wickets. He enticed Warner to drive on 47 and ripped it back to through gate to rattle leg stump. Doherty then forced a defensive prod from Usman Khawaja, yielding an inside edge which was claimed by Ed Cowan's quick reflexes at short leg.
When James Faulkner trapped Phil Jaques in front just on lunch Tasmania looked to have reclaimed the ascendency. But the middle session belonged to Hughes. He had looked impressive but vulnerable at different times in the morning. He was 55 at lunch having been reprieved by the normally reliable Bailey on 48. But in the afternoon Hughes showed how far his game had come. He looked impenetrable. His movements were simple; his bat looked as wide as the Derwent. His previously unusual back foot movement to leg was now going to off. He covered off stump in defence. He drove magnificently straight when given the chance. He also cut responsibly and sensibly when offered width and struck one powerful slog sweep off Doherty for six.
He combined beautifully with his captain and, at times, Test opening partner who was unusually batting at No. 5. Katich was dogged prior to tea while Hughes flourished. After tea Katich scored prolifically while Hughes dropped anchor. It was typical Katich. Anything short and wide was punished and anything straight picked off. Their partnership of 185 looked to set the game up before Tasmania took the new ball and showed the wicket still had plenty to offer for the bowlers. Katich was trapped four shy of a century by James Faulkner. His 96 had taken him to fourth all-time for total runs scored in Shield Finals. Hughes fell to a beauty from Luke Butterworth who bowled better than his one wicket suggested. Butterworth consistently beat the bat all day but Hughes' was the only edge that went to hand.
The Blues sent in nightwatchman Scott Coyte with Katich falling in the 87th over. But the man they were protecting, Ben Rohrer, batted anyway with Hughes departure. New South Wales will look to post 400 plus with Peter Nevill and Steve O'Keefe still to come. It will be a good platform for the away side that need to win to claim their 46th Shield. A draw will be good enough for Tasmania.
Alex Malcolm is a freelance writer based out of Perth