Merv Hughes - master of playing by ear (28 November 1998)

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28 November 1998

Merv Hughes - master of playing by ear

By Martin Johnson

SHORTLY before Alec Stewart left home for England's tour of Australia, contemplating a workload that only just stopped short of piloting the plane, his wife doubtless went through the traditional checklist for departing travellers. "Now then, dear, got everything? Passport, bat, pads, hairbrush (the skipper is nothing if not perfectly groomed) wicketkeeping gloves, earplugs?"

As someone who played grade cricket in Perth for seven winters, Stewart knows better than most that when Australian fast bowlers start putting it around your ears, we are talking verbal as well as physical. On England's last Ashes tour here, when the injury list became so farcical that Stewart himself was unable to get treatment on a damaged finger because the physio was in hospital having an X-ray on a broken digit of his own, the only surprise was the absence of a perforated eardrum.

However, for the first time in the last four Ashes series in Australia, England find themselves playing in an atmosphere which, while not quite on the public library scale of silence, at least falls short of having the same effect on the ears as a pneumatic drill. And for this they can thank the absence of the man his team-mates call 'Fruitfly' - after the great Australian pest, Mervyn Gregory Hughes.

At the age of 36, Hughes is now in the autumn of his career with the one Australian side that would struggle in county cricket - Australian Capital Territory - which has certainly deprived the series of some of its character. Hughes's appearance alone was comical enough, with a stomach that was the rough equivalent of a female kangaroo with quadruplets stuffed into its pouch, and a coiffeur apparently entrusted to an inebriated sheep-shearer somewhere in the Outback.

His mincing approach resembled a someone in high heels and a panty-girdle running after a bus, and from beneath the furry koala attached to the underside of his nose would pour forth words of such eloquence and sensitivity - "I'll bowl you an effing piano, yer pommie pooftah, let's see if you can play that" - it made you wonder why he had been overlooked as Australia's poet laureate.

If Steve Waugh is the only Australian still playing Test cricket who can still remember what it is like to lose an Ashes series to England, Merv was also a member of Allan Border's beaten team on Mike Gatting's 1986-87 tour. It was on his then home ground in Melbourne that Hughes made his one significant contribution to the series, hoisting the catch to Gladstone Small which gave England a 2-0 lead with one Test to play.

It was almost the last time that England's cricketers were to crack open the champagne against Australia, the one exception merely serving to demonstrate the humiliating gulf between the sides since.

"It was over lunch on the second day of the Trent Bridge Test in 1989," recalled Hughes with a chuckle, after Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh had batted through the entire first day to finish on 301 for nought. They finally got Marsh out the following morning as Australia collapsed to 430 for one, and Hughes said: "Gower came across to our table with a glass of bubbly and laughed, 'Here's to the first wicket of the day, boys!' "

This kind of black humour, while archetypically English, does not sit well with the Australian psyche, and Hughes earmarked that Melbourne Test of 1986 as the mental turning point in a sequence that has seen Australia win, mostly by crushing margins, the last five series between the sides.

It was all over in less than three days at the MCG, and Allan Border, the captain, sat slumped in a dressing-room that Hughes recalled as being as "low and dispirited" as any he had been in. "AB said, 'I never want to experience a hiding like this one ever again', and we set out from that point to do something about it.

"Border and David Gower were great pals, but before we left for England in 1989, AB decided that he was sick of being seen as a good bloke and losing. In fact, he came right out and said, 'I'd sooner be a prick and win', and that's when we started to turn things around.

"He gave Gower, then the England captain, the complete cold shoulder, and everything we did on that tour - and have done since - was calculated and ruthless.

"We were also the first team to really do our homework on the opposition. AB had played the previous two English summers with Essex and knew everything there was to know about the Pommy players. Everyone else chipped in with theories, and though Geoff Lawson amazed us all when he said that Gower was vulnerable to a leg stump attack, it worked so well that 'Henry' Lawson got him out twice down the leg side in the opening Test."

There was another side to the Australian approach that summer, in that they indulged in a lot of sledging. Hughes led the earborne assault troops with more relish than anyone - and there were times when he got so close to deliver his invective that England's batsmen were in danger of coming down with moustache rash.

Hughes's favourite targets down the years have been Michael Atherton, Robin Smith, and, most of all, Graeme Hick, whose sensitive nature left him without an adequate response, and once prompted Dickie Bird to start flapping in his own inimitable way. "Mervyn, Mervyn," said Dickie, "those are terrible things to say. What has that nice Mr Hick ever done to you?"

"Yeah, I was a bit OTT with Hick," said Hughes, "but let me just say a couple of things. I only ever sledged batsmen that I respected, so when Atherton described my behaviour on the field as suggesting that I had no respect for English batsmen, he couldn't have been more wrong. As for Atherton, I couldn't have been more wrong about him either.

"When I first saw him I thought, 'What a skinny little twerp' and his body language looked totally defeatist. But he turned out to be one of the toughest characters I've ever bowled to. And don't be fooled by the choirboy features either. He wasn't averse to a conversation out in the middle.

"It's not all one way, believe you me, though Athers could never really get through to me because he was far too intelligent. Most of what he said went clear over my head."

One of the most celebrated two-way conversations in recent England-Australia history involved Hughes and Robin Smith. Hughes started it when he beat Smith's outside edge and snarled: "Smith, you can't effing well bat to save your life." Next ball, recalled Hughes "he tanked me for four, wandered down the pitch and said, 'Make a good pair, don't we? I can't effing bat, and you can't effing bowl.' I didn't see the funny side at the time, but we had a good laugh afterwards, and are really the best of mates.

"The way I see it, and the way I've always played it, is that no one who plays Test cricket, not even [he chuckles] a Pommy batsman, is less than highly competent at his art. Therefore, it was my job to make sure I exposed any weakness in temperament, and if I wasn't giving the batsman heaps, then in my book I wasn't doing my job."

Hughes many times illustrated the difference in approach which has emphasised the gulf between the teams in recent years, not least by turning himself from a hopeless batsman (his first three Test scores were 0, 0 and 0) into someone who took 71 off the English attack in the first Test at Headingley in 1989. Hughes might have had a stomach like Pavarotti, but his heart was the size of Ayers Rock, and it was his lung-bursting chase after a ball in what appeared to be a lost cause which led to Atherton being run out for 99 in the Lord's Test of 1993.

One area in which he was less than totally dedicated was his weight, which so irritated the Australian selectors that at one stage they came close to pinning up 'wanted' posters in every pizza parlour in Victoria. Hughes said: "It's a lesson for others that I'd have had longer at the top if I'd looked after myself better. The body parts, especially the knees and back, wore out a bit quicker, and the weight got me in the end."

As for Australia's long-standing domination in Ashes cricket, Hughes believes that it is more a question of attitude than talent. Hughes said: "We can stand losing to anyone bar the Poms, and shed blood to avoid it. But there's a lot of talent in England, and the wheel will turn once they learn how to be more positive, not just on the day but in their whole philosophy.

"It's always the negative with England. I mean, here you are starting this tour with Peter Philpott giving you tutorials on leg spin. Immediately you're saying that you have a Warne phobia. Then there was Atherton talking about mental scars from Glenn McGrath. Jeez, you don't open up those cuts in public.

"If you're doubting these things at the start of a series, what's it going to be like when the going gets really tough? The difference between the two teams at the moment, and this is something England have to gets to grips with if they're to turn it all around, is simple.

"When Australia lose, we look for reasons. When England lose, they look for excuses."

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk)

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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