January 6, 2011

The Hangman’s Way

Christian Ryan
Philip Hughes plays a weird shot, Australia A v England, Hobart, 3rd day, November 19, 2010
Phil Hughes' unorthodox technique has brought him two Test hundreds, but failed him in this Ashes series  © Associated Press
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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

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Posted by ravi on (January 7, 2011, 6:23 GMT)

Laxman also has dodgy foot movement and chases at wide deliveries some time . So if hughes makes it good in test cricket won't be a surprise. Australia need to give some time to its young players. Even Laxman struggled in his early tests too and if you want to name an Australian than who other than your mighty former test captain Steve Waugh.

Posted by peter warrington on (January 7, 2011, 5:23 GMT)

given how many of his last 2-3000 runs Clanger nicked through slips, it's no surprising the whole top order minus Watson is playing that way. sadly the Poms can bowl and catch these days. disaster follows.

Boon could think about swapping selecting for batting coaching. he evolved a pretty solid technique. or GS Chappell. he was good at that, at least.

down we go by an innings again and a perfect opportunity to blood a young quick has been blown. meanwhile the calls for the two 36 year olds out with injury to return to the top 6 are overwhelming. this country needs a big enematic dose of the Collingwoods. he at least has some common sense.

next summer i'd like to see a 3 x 4-day probables v possibles series in October so the first test team is picked on form. no bullshit shoulder one dayers in Katowice. take the summer seriously.

and Hilditch's head on a platter for my 46th on 22 Jan would be nice, please.

PS reading the Hughes book for the 3rd time. simply the best.

Posted by doug on (January 7, 2011, 2:48 GMT)

You're right, at the moment it doesnt work. Much like many things that we've seen from the Aussies in this series. I'm an Aussie, but I'm glad they got a pasting in this series because maybe, finally, the penny might drop. I got sick of watching crap bowling, the likes of which my old junior coach would have been unhappy with if we had bowled in those areas as 14 year olds. And batting, my god. I know the poms bowling was good, but dont you expect that, and allow for it? I cant believe professional players constantly put up such mindless, undisciplined performances. At least you could see Phil Hughes trying to improve his approach, the others, bar Hussey were a joke. And Boycot's ideas about the selectors were spot on. Get rid of Hilditch, he has no clue.

Posted by damien pollock on (January 6, 2011, 23:38 GMT)

Whilst the assertion that Hughes may well prosper in future Ashes is possible I have the feeling that he won't be in the team long enough. Hughes has scored centuries so it must be hoped he can do it again & soon but it seems he has gone from wunderkind to bunny so quickly & completely that it almost looks a formality when he bats that a poor shot is only a (short)matter of time. Katich will occupy a spot for a while longer but the longing to have Watson play a genuine 6 means both opening spots are there for a player who can do a consistently good job. Hughes does not look like this player at present & one can't help but think that in tough times players fall back on sound technique & careful elimination of the troublesome shot. That Hughes has such un-orthodox technique once made him dominant but is now the weakness as he has less to fall back on. He appears to be unable to defend & it must be hard to be nimble when your feet are off the ground at the same time.

Posted by Udayan on (January 6, 2011, 22:10 GMT)

With all due respect to Mr. Hitchens, there is a surer method of making tea, and that is to not use tea-bags at all, but tea leaves.

i.e. I think there is something to be said for a compact, tight defensive technique.

Posted by Shail Buch on (January 6, 2011, 19:29 GMT)

Great maths !! But too simple. Hope Hughes reads this one and makes it a bit tough for Ryan who is a master. Sehwag has similer ideas about the footwork. May be Phil can just take a leaf or two from his book.

Posted by sandeep on (January 6, 2011, 18:35 GMT)

Sitting in distance away in india and listening to channel 9 commentator y and then reading yours and peter english's daily blogs /columns makes me confused sometimes are both cricinfo and channel 9 covering the same ashes series in which england are about to beat Australia 3-1 :-) honestly how can channel 9 go to such depths

Posted by tb on (January 6, 2011, 17:00 GMT)

I feel strongly the review system has had a major impact to the Ashes outcome. The sledging Aussies do affects the players and the umpires. Now with a review process and a number of decisions going in favor of England, fairness in cricket has been established and it shows the aussie team weak when everything is put on a balance

Posted by Joachim Smith on (January 6, 2011, 15:31 GMT)

I doubt it....

Posted by DAVID on (January 6, 2011, 12:52 GMT)

Champion schoolboy cricketer maybe, imposing club batsman, early success in SA made him the next Bradman. Unfortunately batsmen all get a honeymoon season until the opposition know what they are about. Fatally flawed technique for a Test player, one day and 20/20 maybe. He was chosen for Oz with a Shield average less than 20 this season and ended the Ashes with an average of less than 20. I shouldn't start on Clarke, averaging around 20 as the Australian Captain elect........ Why would anybody be surprised, never mind the incompetent Chairman of Selectors Hilditch who after 15 years should resign forthwith!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christian Ryan
Christian Ryan lives in Melbourne, writes and edits, was once the editor of The Monthly magazine and Wisden Australia, and now bowls low-grade, high-bouncing legbreaks with renewed zeal in recognition of Stuart MacGill's retirement and the selection opportunities this presents. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

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