January 6, 2011

The Hangman’s Way

At six past midday on Wednesday, Alastair Cook got a ball that was neither wide nor full and he greeted it like a stork helping itself to water

At six past midday on Wednesday, Alastair Cook got a ball that was neither wide nor full and he greeted it like a stork helping itself to water. Long legs bent gently down. With head still, then a snap of the wrists, he sent the ball skimming not too hard, but just hard enough, away from the green and burgundy railings of the Ladies Pavilion and through the covers, his 120th run of the innings, his 697th of the series.

Today Phil Hughes, second delivery he faced, got a ball – not quite wide, not quite full – and stood flatfooted. Only his little arms moved. They hanged the bat out in the ball’s general direction. Ball duly thudded into bat and wobbled off towards gully.

On Slate.com this week, Christopher Hitchens writes entertainingly of the delicate balance between creating a decent cup of tea and an undrinkable one. Always choose a cylindrical, narrow-mouthed mug. Pre-warm the mug. Carry the mug to the kettle rather than the kettle to the mug so that the water when you pour it is actually boiling. Then – and hang on tight as you can to this last bit of advice – put the tea bag in before the water. Reverse this order and you’ll swallow the consequences: a tepid, colourless muck to drink, a “dispiriting tampon surrogate” to dispose of.

As with making tea, so it is with opening the batting. There is more than one way. The difference is that no way is exactly right, no way wrong either. All that can be said of any opening batsman’s way is that it is not like the next bloke’s. Justin Langer finished his playing days with 7696 Test match runs. Robbie Kerr made 31. Sometimes the ugliest little duckling can prosper where the beautiful swan flops utterly.

Here is how Phil Hughes does it. As he waits for the bowler he stands lopsided, half his back shoe visible, on a hunched-over angle that is oddly evocative of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is a 294-step walk to the top of that tower. That is 294 steps more than Hughes takes most deliveries.

There are five feet and seven inches of him. That makes him the same height as Don Bradman in Bradman’s playing days and two inches shorter than the next shortest man in this match. It also makes him quick on his feet, theoretically. But to test that theory he’d have to move his feet. Once upon a time Hughes’s peeping-out back foot would snake towards square leg. Fast bowlers preparing to tackle Australia would spy this on videotape and rub hands with glee. It was a flaw. Hughes eradicated it. He introduced nothing – no forward stride, no cross-crease shuffle into position – in its stead. When a ball is wide, he flays his bat at it. If a ball’s not wide, he hangs his bat out and hopes.

Let us disregard footwork. Hughes does. Hands and eyes can take a batsman a long way, and Hughes’s hands and eyes flash and twitch like lightning. England’s bowlers kept spearing balls at his hip. He clipped, tucked, pushed them for singles. Then they switched their line to off stump, occasionally wider. They wised up and he got bogged down. It had happened in the first innings, when they strangled him for 17 scoreless deliveries and he succumbed on the 18th. Today 40 balls went by. Hughes could force only four of them away for runs. Tim Bresnan bowled, and waited, waiting to find that hanging-out bat’s edge. It was not a long wait.

He’d made 13. Hughes is incapable of a boring 13. This 13 was not pretty – but it was pretty enthralling. And there was a boundary, looked like an edge, when he lashed at a wide one and it soared over everyone’s heads and everyone cursed the lucky so-and-so.

But he wasn’t lucky. It wasn’t an edge. He’d middled it. He has been playing that particular shot since he was 12, when the angry adult fast bowlers of Macksville would try to knock the too-talented-for-his-own-good kid’s head off.

The batting equivalent of a cup of tea and a lie down, Phil Hughes is not. But his way is his way. Who knows, one day it might bring him 697 runs in an Ashes summer.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country