August 21, 2013

Losing Phil Hughes

He was a magical player when he made his Test debut, but the establishment's orthodoxy, confusion and fear have reduced him to a shadow of his old self

Phil Hughes' career is a cautionary tale of Australia losing trust in itself © Getty Images

At the start of the 2009 season, on a rare foray into actual cricket journalism, I went to Middlesex's pre-season press conference at Lord's. It was packed with chattering hacks, enticed not by the opening of the county championship but the presence of Andrew Strauss, giving his first interviews of an Ashes season, and the introduction of Angus Fraser's latest signing, a kid from a banana farm in New South Wales, who, in between inking his contract and arriving in a chilled and grey England, had made a sensational entry into Test cricket in South Africa. He had shrugged off a four-ball duck in his debut innings to make scores of 75, 115 and 160 in his next three, and had dismantled a bowling attack that consisted of Steyn, Ntini, Morkel and Kallis in their own backyard with a series of unconventional and thrilling assaults.

It was no surprise. His life had been filled with such success: he scored 141 not out on his grade debut in Sydney, made 51 and 137 for New South Wales seconds to ensure a first-class debut where he'd got 51, and then scored a match-winning hundred in his first Pura Cup final. He was on the endless upward curve of the great player.

Phil Hughes came into the room. He was tiny, with one of those faces that might have been staring at you in sepia from a bygone age. His eyes were sharp and bright. He had presence, X-factor, star quality. It was like looking at a young racehorse.

During a green and wet springtime, he batted five times for Middlesex in the Championship, made three hundreds and two fifties and averaged 143.50. A country kid from rural New South Wales with a technique all of his own and a fresh and rapid eye… Well.

Three Test match innings later, after scores of 36, 4 and 17, with his average still above 50, Hughes was dropped by Australia for the first time. At the root of this decision was fear. Fear that the way he batted was not suited to Test cricket, fear that the Ashes might be lost, fear that the Australian era was coming to an end.

The corrosive quality of fear has reduced Phil Hughes. When I see him bat now, he is a shadow of the player who carved apart almost every bowler he faced for the first 20 years of his life. When I see him speak, he is nervy, diminished, deferential. The sharp glare in his eye has gone. He doesn't open the batting anymore. He is 24 years old and might be changed irrevocably. No one is asking why.

He was, like Bradman, a country boy coming out of nowhere, defying convention. Where The Don picked the bat up differently, Hughes ignored one of the immutable laws of batting and stayed leg side of the ball, from where he carved and sliced through the off side and mowed down the ground like Nadal hitting a low forehand. Even in an age at ease with unorthodoxy Hughes was too much, and yet it was unorthodoxy that made him devastating, that set him apart.

The great and unmentioned facet of the way he played was that staying leg side of the rising ball had always been, in the accomplished batsman, a mark of cowardice. The only reason for not getting into line was a fear of being hit. That wasn't why Hughes did it, but he was fighting a century's worth of conventional wisdom, and almost subconsciously it played into a wider notion that he would have to reinvent his technique if he was to succeed as a Test match player.

The weird magic that Phil Hughes possessed has all but perished in the effort to do so.

He went to his first Test hundred with consecutive sixes. Fear was not in his mind then. Fear is everywhere now.

To a greater or lesser extent, every player gets found out, worked out, worked over. For the best, this happens at Test level because it's the only standard high enough to do it. Nothing unexpected happened to Phil Hughes. What's shocking is how quickly he was first discarded and how completely his methods were written off. Orthodoxy has laid low something special. Hughes was an extraordinary sight, an outlier, and that has been lost in the doubt and confusion of his coaches.

Before technique, cricket is a game of hand-eye co-ordination, something given its perfect iteration by Virender Sehwag's irreducibly brilliant "see ball, hit ball". Great players from Bradman to Sehwag have understood this and played the game their way, shifting its parameters to accommodate their vision. Their faith in the way they did what they did was never undermined.

Hughes is a paradigm for Australian cricket, which no longer trusts itself. He should be burning with anger at what has been taken away, and use that anger to fuel a return to what he was. He has nothing more to lose now.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Christopher on August 25, 2013, 0:13 GMT

    @Mad_Hamish, I can hardly blame you for pointing to the effects rather than the cause. They are the same effects that have brought us all so much frustration. One does wonder if he will ever be encouraged to play his original game, maliciously and permanently tampered with by his own squad members, before the Lions game. I can barely bring myself to watch this 'sanitized' CA authorised version of Hughes. I have asked myself for years why he doesn't revert to his original game and be damned, rather than eking out this shadowed, institutionally approved existence. When one has been in the presence of rare genius, one understands that it takes rare injustice to obscure it. He is playing a version of cricket that was forced upon him by his own organisation, rather than the opposition. The myth has revolved around him, being found out.' Again, it makes one bitter to know that little could be further from the truth and for those who can stir themselves to look, the evidence is everywhere.

  • LOUIS on August 22, 2013, 21:55 GMT

    I think the description of him as a racehorse is wide of the mark.. but not by much. In fact, he was more like a unicorn.. magical, effervescent.. but ultimately too fragile to survive in the real world.

  • Owen on August 22, 2013, 20:58 GMT

    I can never understand a coach who tries to change the technique of someone who has got to test level. If they got to test level on the back of it, then clearly their technique is working for them. Jimmy Anderson is a classic case when they tried to remodel his action. It seems to be a case of over eager coaches trying to meddle, not looking at results and not being brave enough to back a player who does something different. Although looking at Steve Smith and the success he is having with Australia at the moment, perhaps they are learning!

  • Hamish on August 22, 2013, 13:24 GMT

    Phil Hughes 26 tests, 1535 runs @ 32.65 3 100s and 7 50s Dave Warner 22 tests 1389 runs @ 37.54 3 100s and 8 50s. How does Hughes have a far superior record?

    Since Hughes' debut series he's played 43 innings and averaged 27 with 1 100 and 6 50s. Not good enough and if he's been shattered by being dropped then tough, it's happened to damned near everybody (including Bradman).

  • Subramaniam on August 22, 2013, 12:40 GMT

    Hughes shld take a leaf out of Viru and Chanders and try to make a name for himself.Hope the selectors play him as an opener rather than a no.6.It was so disheartening to see an opener play at no.6.I don't understand what the Aussie think tanks were doing?

  • Christopher on August 22, 2013, 11:45 GMT

    @amitgarg78...I understand your reservations when comparisons are made with the wonderful Sehwag, but Hughes challenges arrived with orthodoxy, not without. His remodelled game is more front on and the arc of his bat is different. It allows almost no room for him to adjust to swing,spin or bounce. The team was already replete with orthodox batsmen who were failing. By remaining leg-side of the ball, he stayed side-on, creating a longer and more natural arc of the bat to deal with movement and bounce.Those who speak of Hughes from the Lions game onwards have been misled.A quick review of his twin 100's highlights v SA on Youtube will reward you. I consider him up to that point to be a prodigy, second only to Bradman in Aus cricket, in the quality and results that he was demonstrating.That they havent been fulfilled is not as big a tragedy as the lack of support and very public campaign encouraged by CA into his perceived failings and their cause.History will show it to have been wrong.

  • Christopher on August 22, 2013, 11:34 GMT

    @John-Price, the question of cause and effect arises. The SA attack that he flayed had over 1100 Test wickets, including Steyn,Ntini, Morkel, Kallis & Harris. They served it up to him at high speed with traps in place & failed. The highlights can still be seen on Youtube of his 115 & 160 to dispel doubts, including myth busting leg side boundaries. His run before the Eng Lions game was 1637 runs with 8 Centuries at 96 from 10 games. The change came when, on joining the Ashes squad & before the Lions game, he was instructed to 'prepare differently in a way that was unsuited to his game'. His long time mentor, DeCosta made a public statement to that effect. It's hardly surprising that when being asked to reinvent an unorthodox but fabulously successful game at international level, literally overnight, that he lacked answers. I'm astonished that no-one asked. He was placed in a spiteful position, where he wouldn't be selected unless he changed to their way, but couldnt succeed if he did.

  • Christopher on August 22, 2013, 11:20 GMT

    Fantastic article. Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou. I've been writing this exact post since 2009 and yours is the first to highlight it,with one caveat-that of cause and effect. His coach and mentor DeCosta said publicly that on joining the Ashes squad in '09, he was,'forced to prepare differently in a manner that was unsuited to him.'Why weren't questions asked. Nielsen made it clear that,'he hadn't been in expected to do so well and wasn't in their original Ashes plan-Watson was.' There was a mirroring of the English selections by type that was a theory in vogue. It has long been my contention that,far from being found out,which on the face of it was laughable after his triumphs v the far superior SA attack and at Middlesex,that he was following forced instructions to play a different game with more orthodoxy. I'm still enraged that he has borne this scar publicly for a campaign invented by CA. I considered him a prodigy, because of his unorthodox play and the reasons you have outlined

  • John on August 22, 2013, 9:42 GMT

    One item omitted from this account is his appearance against England Lions at Worcester in 2009. Steve Harmison made him look vulnerable to the short bal, hit him oncel and got him cheaply twice. This gave England confidence against him in the test series and this game was seen as part of a sequence of low scores which led to his being dropped.He has never really recovered and when he appeared in county cricket (again at Worcester) he was a much more introverted batsman.