Langer talks comeback as Hughes struggles
Australians 231 for 3 (Watson 84, Hussey 75*) v Northamptonshire
The pressure is mounting on Phillip Hughes. No sooner had Australia's embattled opener fallen cheaply to David Wigley, Northamptonshire's journeyman seamer, than reports were surfacing of Justin Langer's proposed comeback to Test cricket. And if that wasn't enough, the two batsmen best placed to usurp Hughes this tour, Shane Watson and Michael Hussey, both notched half-centuries on a rain-interrupted day in Northampton.
A day removed from overtaking Don Bradman as Australia's high first-class run scorer, Langer revealed he would be prepared to "play the third Test for Australia next week for nothing". The likelihood of Australia's selectors accepting his offer may well be infinitesimal but the stir it caused at Wantage Road on Friday said much about the concerns harboured about Hughes and his diminishing returns.
Since arriving in England with the Australian team, the 20-year-old has scored just 82 first-class runs at 13.66. Never before in his 28-game first-class career has he endured a stretch this long without registering a half century. His prolific feats for Middlesex now resemble a false dawn.
Hughes' efforts in South Africa, as well as his brisk 78 in the unofficial match against Sussex, might just have provided him with enough selection credits to carry through this Ashes series, but should his struggles continue Phil Jaques and Chris Rogers will certainly enter the frame for Australia's next Test assignment against West Indies. Langer may present a fair case with a typically solid 529 runs at 44.08 for Somerset this season, but at 38, and with no Tests to his name since the fifth and final match of the 2006-07 Ashes, his prospects are remote in the extreme.
"One of the boys in the Somerset changing room asked me 'if they asked you to play tomorrow, how much would it take?' and I said I would play the third Test for Australia next week for nothing," Langer told the Press Association on Friday. "When you have played that much, you miss the big Tests. I miss the hype of the Ashes series.
"I also miss the challenge of playing against Andrew Flintoff. That is what it is all about. That is the great test for batsmen. I really miss being in those sort of battles. I miss Test cricket. There is a lot I don't miss about it but these big series, I'd play tomorrow if I was asked."
Langer has previously likened Hughes to Steve Waugh in terms of temperament, but the out-of-sorts opener appeared anything but assured during his brief stint at the crease on Friday. Hughes opened the day with a firmly struck cover drive to the boundary, but was promptly reined in and eventually fell to a short-of-a-length delivery, continuing a worrying trend on this tour.
Wigley, who possesses a modest first class average of 34.72 across stints with three counties, rocked Hughes onto the back-foot with a rib-high delivery around off-stump. Hughes fended at the ball but succeeded only in making contact with the shoulder of his bat, resulting in a simple catch to Alex Wakely in the gully for 10.
Hughes' opening partner, Simon Katich, represented the only other Australian wicket to fall during a rain-interrupted first two sessions. Katich pushed at a fuller, seaming delivery from David Willey, the son of the former England batsman Peter, for 25, but Watson spared Australia's blushes with a sparkling 84 from 96 deliveries, including 15 boundaries and a six.
Watson, in his maiden first-class appearance this tour, was ruthless square of the wicket, particularly on the hook and pull. The allrounder showed few ill-effects from his extended bout with a thigh strain, and can further press his case for selection with the ball over the weekend.
Watson eventually played under a delivery from Graeme White, an emerging left-arm finger spinner, and feathered an edged to the wicketkeeper. Hussey, however, maintained the pressure on the opposition with a determined innings of 75 not out before bad light stopped play late on the first evening.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo