August 23, 2014

The Phillip Hughes debate never ends

He makes buckets of runs but cannot hold his place in the Test side. What needs to work for him going forward?

Ungainly, yet effective. Phillip Hughes' style is unmatched © Getty Images

Sometimes I worry that I don't have a strong enough opinion of Phillip Hughes. Like Shane Watson, Shaun Marsh and David Warner, Hughes tends to spur Australians into the kind of animated debate normally reserved for political leaders.

It pays to remember that Hughes is only 25 years old. He seems older than that because he's been around for the last eight Australian summers, yet he's probably still nearer to the beginning of his career than the end. Aside from the fact that he'll make hundreds (39 now at professional level and counting), we're still to see irrefutable signs that he can be the dominant player at Test level that he is against first-class attacks. A lot of people find that very frustrating, perhaps much more than they should.

It's hard to get your head around Hughes, because though you might pore over his impressive statistics and mentally tally up all those hundreds, he still looks like a bit of a slogger. In that respect, he's nothing like Michael Bevan, the player I most readily recall when assessing Hughes' career. Bevan's first-class batting against his Test equivalent was 57.32 v 29.07. Right now Hughes sits at 46.59 and 32.65, and though you'd like to hope those numbers would come closer together, it's still to be seen whether he'll pull it off.

"Slogger" is a little unfair, actually. The way that Hughes hits the ball doesn't readily compare with most of what you'll see from batsmen at international level. Still, memories can be short. Many tributes to Hughes' eye-popping List A double-century against South Africa A a few weeks back seemed to suggest that it was an innings of excellence. Its statistical specifications (it was the only time an Australian man has reached the mark in List A cricket) would bear that out.

Still, the two-and-a-half minute highlights clip I saw of that knock should have come with a parental advisory warning for all of the X-rated shots he played.

Hughes hits the ball like someone trying to play a round of golf with a tennis racquet. It's ugly, occasionally even beautifully so because the trigger movements and improvisations are so out of the ordinary that many must be either premeditated, which still requires a phenomenally good eye, or else the by-product of committing to a deliberate range of strokes that would make even lesser batsmen blush with embarrassment. After this long it appears unlikely that those quirks will ever be coached out of him. He'll probably always play shots that look like MMA moves.

In its own way, that one-day innings for Australia A also made me consider something; in the Test arena the most unorthodox and ungainly of Hughes' strokes feel like they stem from insecurity or some sense that he's overwhelmed by the bowling. In fact, he plays that way no matter who the opposition. He's made formidable Test attacks look toothless and inept but then we have also seen him struggle to hit it off the square against domestic trundlers. It's hard, but try watching him bat with everything you know about him removed from your mind. Nobody in Test cricket looks like that when they bat, except Hughes.

Historically speaking, the lazy criticism we have tended to level at batsmen of their youthfulness is that they are all style over substance. Hughes inverts that cliché - substance is all he really has; lots of hundreds and regular intervals. At his age, most players are hoping for their first national call-up; Michael Hussey's Test career was still half a decade away. Hughes got there early for a reason, though; he's always a chance of making big runs and his thirst for them doesn't wane.

Hughes' early path is well known enough by now: banana-farming teenager bashes his way into the Test side, takes apart the world's best pace attack on foreign soil and then gets even more comprehensively taken apart himself. In the Test arena at least, the narrative pattern since has been one of booms and busts - a Test recall here, a failure, the axe, a restorative show of determination and tons of first-class runs, a shuffle down the order and then the chop. Rinse and repeat.

So what now? He'll hover on the fringes of the ODI side and he'll continue to savage Sheffield Shield bowling attacks, possibly for another decade. His detractors will continue to say that you can't place much stock in domestic runs. Well, not when it comes to Hughes, anyway. At the moment Australia are settled with the opening combination of David Warner and Chris Rogers, though the latter needs runs every time he bats to stave off a selectorial bullet himself and probably can't be expected to hang on for any longer than another 18 months.

With that in mind, here are some but not all of the potential Hughes scenarios to consider:

Scenario 1: Rogers departs in 12-18 months time
If top-order balance and innings tempo are a concern to the national selection panel, they will be hoping for Warner to continue to mature in a batting sense and stay as reliable as he has been in his last couple of completed Test series. In that scenario, Hughes is freed up to play naturally, which is to say loose and slightly unpredictable. He might thrive if allowed to settle at the top and he might not. In this time he might already have been leapfrogged by a young gun, a potential irony given he originally did the same to Rogers and other contenders.

What has potentially hurt Hughes the most in the last few years is that he has not only been dropped but shuffled around the order so frenetically. Standing at the other end as Ashton Agar dazzled us at Trent Bridge a year back, Hughes compiled an underappreciated and unbeaten 81 batting at No. 6. A match later he was shifted up to four. A match after that he was dropped again, one of an uncomfortable number of mid-series axings. A clearly defined role wouldn't hurt.

Scenario two: Alex Doolan does badly in the next three to five Tests
If the incumbent No. 3 does poorly in the Pakistan Test series in the UAE, there will most likely be a temptation to replace him with Hughes for the summer Tests against India. It's not perfect but Hughes could only blame himself if he didn't tuck into the Indian attack on home soil. On more than one occasion in the last three seasons, Hughes himself has shielded other batting contenders from inhospitable conditions, so you couldn't begrudge him a free kick like India in Australia.

Scenario three: Rogers and Doolan both hold their spots for 12 months and more
There are other factors at play, of course. Michael Clarke could wrench his back, Watson could do any number of patented Shane Watson things, and again, Rod Marsh might also decide that there are batsmen worth trying ahead of Hughes. In this scenario you'd still fancy he'll be considered for ODI teams, which wouldn't be a complete disaster in the short term. His List A average (48.23) compares favourably with virtually all current ODI squad members.

Maybe none of these things will happen but Hughes will probably still keep churning out hundreds. How things will pan out for him in the Test arena over the next couple of years is hard to predict but there can be no clearer summary of his place in the zeitgeist than the first line of his bio on the Cricket Australia website: "Phillip Hughes is one of the most polarising players in the Australian team." Well, when they actually pick him, anyway.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko