Hughes ready to begin again
Once more, Phillip Hughes is setting off overseas with optimism, ambition and the promise of a new technique. Once more, he is doing so after a wretched Australian season that exposed his frailties at the top level of the game. Soon all will see whether the Hughes of 2012 is indeed a batsman entering maturity, or the same harried young figure who played his most recent Test match in Hobart last November and subsequently slipped from international contention.
In 2010-11, Hughes was one of many Ashes casualties, and last year he became the very public rabbit of Chris Martin and Martin Guptill. These episodes were preceded, of course, by the 2009 Ashes, when the Australia selectors dropped Hughes in mid-series only two Tests after he had completed his first Test assignment with honours in South Africa.
Much as he did in 2011, this year Hughes retreated first to his family property in Macksville, then convened with his longtime batting coach Neil D'Costa, the only man with whom he is prepared to discuss matters of technique. Their handiwork will be tested out in England, via an extended county stint with Worcestershire. Though still only 23, Hughes wants to break out of the pattern that has so far defined his young career.
"That is a big test and I'm looking forward to it," Hughes said, of the prospect of facing the seaming ball in England. "I've been over to county cricket two times before, this is my third, first time at Worcester and my biggest stint: three-and-a-half months, there's a lot of cricket to be played, and I can't wait to be over there in totally different conditions to here.
"[I've done] a lot of work in the nets. After the season finished with NSW I had a bit of downtime and went back to the country with my family, just to get away from everything. I got back to Sydney for a lot of one-on-one coaching with Neil D'Costa in the nets, a lot of fitness work as well."
Hughes is presently a long way back in the queue for Australian places, a fact demonstrated when he was deemed surplus to the Australia A squad that will also be playing first-class matches in the latter part of the northern summer. But he is aware of his standing as one of few young batsmen in the country to show the focus required for long innings, and also aware that dual Ashes series lurk beyond the horizon in 2013.
"The Ashes series is a long way down the track, but I know personally that in the game of cricket things can change very quickly," Hughes said. "I've been in and out of the side a couple times now and it is tough when you first get dropped. I suppose the second time I'd been there and done that before and I just worked as hard as possible.
"Going back to NSW and state cricket I didn't get the runs I'd have liked, but I got a few starts and I went okay without going great. The big thing now for me is to go to England for three and a half months and play three forms of the game, get out into the centre, make as many runs [as I can] and hopefully cement myself again, I want those runs behind me."
Hughes will soon find out if his technique, which has been tinkered and tweaked by D'Costa over several off-seasons, has emerged from the squared-up mess it appeared to be against New Zealand. A reputation as a "nicker" will precede Hughes in England, but he said bowlers expecting to employ their slips cordons may be surprised by his methods this time around.
"I think so," he said, when asked if people will see the difference. "That's why I'm very keen to get to England. Three and a half months is a lot of cricket and I know I've changed a couple things. I'm keen to get over there, test them out and see how they go. There were times [when the old method worked], depending on different conditions and where I am as well.
"But I've got to keep working on my game, it's as simple as that when you're at the top level. I've played a few Tests now, but it's testing times at the top and everyone knows that - you'd be silly not to keep working on your game. Everyone from around the country always is, and the best players are always tinkering with their game and working at it, and that's what I'm doing."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here