Cowan progresses, Hughes regresses
The past few weeks in India have been a learning experience for Ed Cowan. For Phillip Hughes they have just been an experience. It is okay for Australian batsmen to struggle on their first tour of India, as long as they show signs of improvement. As long as they prove they are absorbing the lessons as they go. Cowan and Hughes began this tour as novices in India. Cowan has progressed to become Australia's second-best batsman in the series. Hughes has not only failed to improve, he has gone backwards.
It is a startling comparison. Aside from a cheap first-innings lbw to a delivery that pitched outside leg in Hyderabad, Cowan's scores and balls faced have grown in every innings: 29 off 45, 32 off 97, 44 off 150, 86 off 238. Meanwhile, Hughes has looked worse and worse against spin and his only double-figure score came because fast men were operating. He scored six from 15 balls of spin in his first innings of the series and since then has managed two runs from 67 deliveries of spin. He did his homework during the week but couldn't put theory into action.
Whatever plan Hughes is working to has failed. Perhaps it is a failure of the coaching staff, but then he has looked much better in the nets than in the Tests. After five innings in India he is still as shaky using his feet as a newborn calf. The team's batting coach Michael di Venuto noted during the week that it's easier to advance when the ball is spinning in than away as the body can provide a second line of defence. But Hughes remains glued to the crease against left-arm orthodox bowlers. He was also unable to pierce the stacked leg-side field and unwilling to hit against the spin to off, perhaps rightly so.
His judgment of length and drift is poor and he struggles to pick the ball out of the hand: he left a carrom ball from R Ashwin on the second day in Mohali that fizzed perilously close to his off stump. Hughes did show patience and eventually nudged a couple of singles but the way he looked, it was only a matter of time until the spinners got him. In the end it was a ball turning down leg that he gloved behind that cost him his wicket, not the most lethal of deliveries but one that, in this form, Hughes was unable to put away.
It left Hughes with 27 runs at 5.40 in this series. He would almost certainly have sat out this match but for Shane Watson's departure and Usman Khawaja's detention. His lack of improvement makes it impossible to see how he can be picked for the next Test in Delhi, given the likelihood of a raging turner. However, he creates a dilemma for the selectors, because he should be of more use in the Ashes in English conditions. But will he get there or will his replacement thrive - as Steven Smith has done in Mohali - and keep him out?
At least the visible improvement from Cowan has relieved the selectors of any doubts about his position, although he is so well-regarded by John Inverarity and Co that they had few anyway. Still, a lean Indian series and an average dipping down into the 20s might have tested their patience.
Cowan has altered his plans since the start of the series, eschewing the aggressive approach that he used in the first innings in Chennai and instead placing a million-dollar price on his wicket. It was a conscious shift. Cowan's response to the coach Mickey Arthur's now infamous homework task was to explain that he wanted to be accountable for batting a long period of time. The team has enough stroke-makers. A crease-occupier, which is a role that comes more naturally to Cowan, provides important balance.
By surviving for 238 deliveries in the first innings in Mohali, Cowan lived up to his words. He has now faced 543 balls in the series, more than any other batsman from either team, including his captain Michael Clarke, who has faced 515. Some critics will argue that Cowan's slow tempo did not suit a match Australia must win to keep the series alive. But that ignores the basic tenet of playing your own game. The rest of Australia's order is filled with faster scorers. Cowan has done his job if he gives them a stable partner.
Certainly he had his share of luck in this innings, although he was due it. A couple of edges evaded first slip and Cheteshwar Pujara at silly point couldn't hang on to another chance. But at least those chances came from Cowan playing his natural style, not trying to be something he is not. That brought him undone in the first innings of the series, when he lofted Harbhajan Singh for six down the ground and then was stumped dancing down the pitch to attempt another.
"My plans have almost come full circle," Cowan said after play. "Coming over here I had it in my mind that I needed to put pressure on the spinners by attacking them ... my game plan has changed from putting pressure on them to putting pressure on them by not letting them get me out. I'm not saying that attacking the spinners wouldn't have worked but I don't think that's my job. I'm at peace with the fact that I've got to grind them out over here."
Cowan guards his stumps carefully. He doesn't mind if dots build up, but when loose balls arrive he dispatches them. He contributes to his own luck by challenging India's fielders to stay alert for long periods. When Hughes is in, they are on guard every delivery, confident that a wicket is imminent. Hughes tries to be patient but cannot get the bad balls away.
In other words, Cowan has discovered what works in the challenging Indian conditions, and the answer is his natural game. Hughes appears not to have a natural game against spin. He cannot regress any further. The question is, will he ever learn?
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here