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Peter English in Cardiff
July 9, 2009
Fearlessness and frailty make young batsmen worth watching. Phillip Hughes, a short, stubbled-jawed 20-year-old, is arresting with his unrefined qualities that at the same time turn up lips in disgust, and freeze muscles with the power of his strokes.
Senior bowlers are admired for their professionalism and ability to fix situations. Hughes was firing boundaries through point and gully before lunch as Australia made a quick start in reply to England's strong 435. He ate feeling comfortable with life in England.
After the break Andrew Flintoff was called by Andrew Strauss, replacing the relative adolescent James Anderson, in a contest of Man versus Boy. Hughes had been roughed up by Steve Harmison in the tour game last week, twice being cornered by short deliveries into his body, and entered the game knowing where the fast bowlers wanted to aim. Instead of balls directed at his armpit in the opening session, he was offered space outside off by Anderson and Stuart Broad, and blasted to 28 off 30.
Flintoff and Harmison are close friends but there was no need for hours of darts to formulate complicated plans for Hughes, the Australian upstart with an ungainly approach to bumpers. Hughes' stance was slightly more open in Cardiff than Worcester, allowing him extra space to escape being trapped into more fending to the slips, and he was keen to duck and sway rather than commit to a defensive shot.
Charging from around the wicket, Flintoff opened with a bouncer and a few words in a Mancunian accent that Hughes would have been lucky to understand. If Hughes, a kid from northern New South Wales, replied in his country drawl Flintoff would have been equally baffled. In South Africa Hughes tried to smile at the sledges but, given his mini-slump and the Ashes occasion, this was not a moment to attempt levity. The intent of Flintoff's bowling did not need translating.
Two more short balls followed and Hughes avoided them in a flurry of sharp movements, like a malfunctioning robot about to lose its springs. He was beaten outside off by the fifth and another bouncer concluded the over. The ball was flying above 90mph, a speed Flintoff's body doesn't allow him to reach for long.
Hughes hasn't faced too many bowlers of that speed and one of his flaws is to play shots while still in the air. When settled, he has everything still for the appropriate moment, then the shuffling re-starts. Under pressure he is rushed and the instability creates problems.
A couple of singles came the next time he faced Flintoff before the bowler got seven goes against Hughes in his fourth over. A cut was missed to begin the exchange and a four was taken behind point from a no-ball. The final delivery terminated the contest. With both feet off the ground, Hughes aimed another force through the offside but was too high on the ball, an under-edge taking Matt Prior to his left for a smart catch.
Pushed further and further back, Hughes had been ruffled by England's enforcer, who briefly forgot the aches in his knee and ankle. Having managed eight runs in 24 balls after lunch, he departed meekly and quietly for 36. Flintoff leaned back, raised his arms, stretched for the sky and roared like it was 2005. He had given away eight runs in four overs and taken the vital early wicket. Shortly after he rested and returned in the final session, a bomber being used in bursts in the hope of dismantling Australia. However, Simon Katich and Ricky Ponting refused to submit and raised centuries, displaying the steel of men who have batted in first-class cricket for more than half of Hughes' life.
Flintoff also knows when to rise, contain or have a break. Hughes is learning about poise and coping with extreme pressure. When he is flying he is addictive, something the grumbling purists will come round to if he has the chance to stay for a full day. He plays like a young Michael Clarke, concerned more by fast runs than bumps or bruises.
Even short innings like these from Hughes must be enjoyed before he grows up, tightens up and trades his flair for a strong foundation. Sadly, this is what batsmen must do to succeed consistently in Tests. It happened to Clarke and Ponting after they were dropped during the early stages of their careers and Flintoff's game had to mature before he was able to bench press England. Flintoff taught Hughes during their 16-delivery duel, shutting down his backyard spirit and showing him how an elite professional operates.
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