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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • shetto on August 26, 2014, 0:16 GMT

    If Phil Hughes keeps piling on the runs at domestic level and where ever he gets an opportunity. There is only one certaintity and that is he will be playing test cricket for Australia again. Despite a shaky start to his career there is strong belief in him from the Australilan selectors and this is why he is a contracted player. This time, I think the coaches will handle him better - give him the opening position where he belongs and will give him the opportunity to develop his confidence and mature at test level without shunting him around the order and in and out of the side. Phil Hughes is young and a high order century maker, the type of batmen the Australian side has been lacking for some time. I think the partnership between Warner and Hughes will provide an exciting run making machine that will send the message to bowling attacks around the world that if you don't get these two guys out quick - you are in for a long day in field.

  • Peterincanada on August 25, 2014, 18:18 GMT

    I have read the history books and there were many, especially in England who said Bradman would not be successful. You see he had this unusual grip where the fingers of the top hand faced the bowler. He was also a country boy but fortunately there were no coaches around then to set him straight and show him the proper way to hold a bat.

  • MasterBlaster100 on August 25, 2014, 8:32 GMT

    Hick and Ramps were technically perfect, but shy and intense on the big stage. Hayden played straight but couldnt handle Curtly, Waqar, Donald etc and had to wait for them to retire before getting those big runs. Bevan couldnt play the short ball which was a big problem in test cricket less so in ODIs. Whereas Phil Hughes really only has one weakness. He has absolutely no technique!! Actually thats not right. He has a repeatable technique, just a very unusual one. Test cricket needs him. Its glorious to watch when its firing. Its compelling to watch when its not. His first test 0 and 75 had both. Pick him please. And it may be unusual but its not as ugly as Chris Rogers. Man that guy is hard to watch.

  • jastill90 on August 25, 2014, 1:45 GMT

    The key to Hughes is confidence. For Aus A recently, he was given choice where he wanted to bat, and given the captaincy. Boom! 2 double hundreds. It's the same at domestic level in the toughest domestic comp in the world. But at Test level, he's consistently been told that his technique is wrong, and that he needs to work on stuff. He started Test cricket with a great series against South Africa, but then fell apart when people got into him in the Ashes. Did Harmison really give him a better work over than Steyn, Morkel, and Ntini? I think not. At Test level, he just needs to be given a couple of seasons, no questions asked. He needs to be told that his technique is different, but is effective and that he can therefore keep batting the way he has been. He slays attacks at Shield level and then comes into the Test arena and gets told he has to bat differently. Then he gets dropped. No wonder he finds it tough to stay in the Test side. They need to pick him and stick with him.

  • dummy4fb on August 24, 2014, 20:54 GMT

    Matthew Hayden played FC very young, had an ungainly technique, scored mountains (far more than Hughes) of runs and had a few unsuccessful interrupted starts at test level. When eventually given the chance at around age 30 he nailed a magnificent test career with 30 centuries. I often wonder how many runs he'd have scored if given a decent chance earlier. Hughes has similar potential.

  • dummy4fb on August 24, 2014, 16:39 GMT

    5 years Ago I watched Middlesex vs Somerset ( and saw Hughes hit a magnificent hundred, square cutting the ball for 4 when there were two gullies posted.

    That day Langer, Trescothick and Shah all scored heavily but Hughes was, to my eyes head and shoulders above that fine trio of gentlemen. I hope he carves out a future at the top level as he is a joy to watch.

    Thank you for this article Russel, I enjoyed it immensely.

  • SLSup on August 24, 2014, 16:09 GMT

    Author says Hughes scores "bucket loads" of runs. Am I the only one noticing Hughes averages less than 33 in Tests? Even his First Class career is not exactly something to write home about.

  • Barnesy4444 on August 24, 2014, 14:46 GMT

    "It is unlikely his quirks will ever get coached out of him". Well that's exactly what they tried to do with a test average of 60. His quirks have returned and so have the big runs. May well his quirks remain for ever.

  • Barnesy4444 on August 24, 2014, 14:43 GMT

    Just pick him and leave him there. Half of the team is close to 35, we need young batsmen coming through and Hughes is head and shoulders above ALL of the rest. He got dropped with a test average of 60. Told to change the way he bats which stuffed him up. Picked when hopelessly out of form. Dropped. Picked and shuffled around the order. Dropped when scoring runs. Please, just pick him and leave him there, as opener. He hasn't stopped scoring big runs in all forms of the game for 18 months now.

  • dummy4fb on August 24, 2014, 12:24 GMT

    Everything that is said about Hughes has been said before about Hick and Ramprakash: prolific at county level, the very occasional good knock at Test level, multiple opportunities, multiple failures.

    Some players just don't have what it takes to make it.

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