Hughes seeks to repair confidence
Phillip Hughes is adamant he can repair his shaken confidence in three warm-up matches ahead of the first Investec Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, starting with Australia A's fixture against Gloucestershire in Bristol from Friday.
A paltry return of 57 runs in five limited-overs innings on this England tour so far has not enhanced Hughes' claims to a spot in the Australian top order for the Test matches to come, particularly when they are added to his poor record against England - 154 runs at 17.11 in five Tests spread across the past two series - and a dire recent tour of India.
But the selectors' decision to send Hughes and Matthew Wade to Bristol to join Australia A will now afford Hughes a trio of first-class matches in which to strive for runs before the Test squad rolls into Nottingham. A century or three over the next two weeks would not only enhance Hughes' chances of retention in the Test team, but also send self-recriminating thoughts of a poor Champions Trophy to the back of his mind.
"I'm really looking forward to getting a couple training days in Bristol and starting Friday," Hughes said in London. "Hopefully spend a bit of time in the middle and get my mental game around the red ball now. It was disappointing to be knocked out and lose those games of cricket in the Champions Trophy, but that's behind us now, it's about moving on.
"We'll be disappointed for a day or two but it's all about the red ball now and we'll get into preparation. Behind the scenes in the nets now all my focus will be on the red ball. It can be at times tricky to juggle formats but the beauty of it is there's still a way to go before the Ashes and we've got some good cricket coming up to that first Test."
Largely due to a homespun batting technique that relies heavily on an uncluttered mind and an exceptional eye rather than precise footwork or a watertight defence, confidence is more critical to Hughes' chances of success than most. This contention is backed up by his penchant for scoring great swathes of runs on some days and looking like the bat is an alien object in his hands on others.
The latter state of affairs was in evidence at The Oval against Sri Lanka, where Hughes used the inside and outside edges far more often than the middle on his way to a fretful 13. He did not look like a batsman thinking clearly and simply about the task at hand. Nevertheless, Hughes argued that four years around international cricket now meant he would be far better prepared to do so when the Ashes begin than he had been on his previous visit to England in 2009.
"It's a tough one," Hughes said of keeping distractions from his mind at the batting crease. "The older you get the better you are at it, I think. You speak to players in the past and they sometimes say you mature at 28-29 years of age. One thing for me is I've still got age on my side. I've been very lucky to be around the international scene for four years, and I feel like I'm in a lot better space than I was four years ago. I feel like my game's come a long, and also mentally it's come along. I suppose it's a pleasing thing going forward, but day in day out I'm still looking to get better.
"One thing around the Ashes is huge hype, so it's about staying as calm as possible and wiping out as much media and outside influence as possible, and keeping a tight team unit. I remember the memories of four years ago and personally how disappointed I was and everyone was when we lost that series. That's in the back of my mind. As a kid growing up you want to win Ashes series and that's what we always talk about."
There was evidence of Hughes' gathering mental strength in India of all places, where he emerged from a nightmarish first two Tests to make a fighting 69 in Mohali then a battling 45 in Delhi. Those innings don't sound like much, but they showed rare persistence on a generally dysfunctional tour, and caught the approving eye of the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland, among others. Hughes will need to repeat the trick over the next two weeks if he is to keep his Test spot.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here