India v Australia, 3rd Test, Mohali, 2nd day March 15, 2013

Cowan progresses, Hughes regresses

While Ed Cowan has found the answer to what works for him in spinning Indian conditions in this Test series, Phillip Hughes seems to have less and less of an idea of the same with every passing innings

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.

Phillip Hughes 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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ash on March 16, 2013, 21:58 GMT

    also its premature and incredulously optimistic comparing hughes to amla, clarke, ponting, and cook. compare like for like, at best hughes can be compared with cowan, s marsh, and other batsmen of similar ilk. the mistake a lot of ppl are making is assuming a shield player is a good test player. some just don't cut it at test level. hughes, i'm afraid, is one of them.

  • Dummy4 on March 16, 2013, 11:26 GMT

    @ostraya I'm afraid you don't have any idea what you're talking about. Hughes was dropped twice in his career already and is the best performed batsman in Australia domestic cricket at the moment (he is is the leading run-scorer in both the Sheffield Shield and Ryobi Cup bar Ponting who is retired). Cook was never dropped but failed many times in his career before the 2010/11 Ashes. In many series, he did worse than Hughes. Your argument is lacking in any evidence. Secondly, how has Hughes not performed? He scored two 80's against Sri Lanka in test cricket, 2 centuries against Sri Lanka (match-winning) and 1 80 against West Indies. He was the best-performed batsman in the summer. He hasn't got this chance by a lucky break. He worked very hard and is performing better than any other domestic batsman in the country. Few have achieved what he has by his age (24 years old). Ponting averaged 25 in India.It's fine to disagree but please look up the evidence first and base an argument on that

  • Cameron on March 16, 2013, 9:15 GMT

    Joe burns should be playing. he has shot up from no where to be one of australias best batsmen atm

  • Ash on March 16, 2013, 7:54 GMT

    @enilno. I beg to differ. amla and clarke were both dropped and made their way back into team after they were significantly improved. cook is only in his mid 20s now and can't recall him being dropped. hughes on the other hand has done nothing to deserve another chance, and this lucky break has proven to be an unlucky one because it highlights his inability and absolutely cluelessness with quality spin bowling. he needs to be dropped and dropped indefinitely.

  • John on March 16, 2013, 6:05 GMT

    @ToTellUTheTruth, by your reckoning Michael Clarke had his first decent innings in over 12 months in the first innings when he was out for a chance less first ball duck and pretty much every batsman who played the game of test cricket before the early 90s when strike rates in the 30s were fairly common was rubbish. Strike rates were so irrelevant they weren't even kept and it was far from unusual to see a batsman soak up 100s of deliveries grinding out runs. When the West Indian quicks could bowl 6 short balls an over it made for slow going.

  • Dummy4 on March 16, 2013, 5:23 GMT

    @ToTellUTheTruth, There may not be formal stats for this, but a good way to read the effectiveness of openers in a Test is the match state when they get dismissed. The state of the Aussie team when Cowan got out was 4-198 off 78 overs. That's not a bad position, and 86 out of a total of 198 is a decent contribution. It also means Cowan nearly got to the 2nd new ball. It may not be a big 100, but it's a solid contribution. Also, consider the level of fatigue in the Indian bowlers. How many runs do you think Starc would have scored if Cowan hadn't soaked up all those deliveries?

  • Shakil on March 16, 2013, 5:06 GMT

    Why does Hughes keep getting chances in the Australian test team?

    He just can't cut it at Test level against stronger teams.

    You might as well play Doolan, Khawaja, David Hussey as the #3..

  • Brenton on March 16, 2013, 3:26 GMT

    Gee, who would have thought the experiment of playing a young opening batsman in the middle order, in totally foreign conditions, in a losing side with only1 senior player, only 1 tour match and 1 week to prepare, would fail? He will be a different player if facing pace/medium on normal pitches. He still needs to be selected for England. Ponting's first tour of India netted an average of only 3.4, and he'd played over 40 tests at that stage in a dominating team! After his 2001 disaster they actually moved him to his more suited position, number 3. Maybe they should move Hughes back to open where he belongs? Contrary to thought Hughes did not get "worked out" by Flintoff in 2009, he was only given 3 innings for 2 starts and one wasn't even out!

  • Dummy4 on March 16, 2013, 3:09 GMT

    I always like ESPN cricinfo. Because it is one of the best Entertain Channel.

  • michael on March 16, 2013, 2:14 GMT

    @Pras_Punter A good fast bowling 4 in the team you selected.However I believe you can't have Moises as a 7 bat & 5th bowler.It doesn't work at test level.He needs to be a top 6 bat &/or a top 4 bowler He MUST be able to hold his position with a specialist skill.For his own state of mind he needs to know his main role in the team.These bits 'n pieces blokes(G.Miller,P.Willey,S.O'Donnell etc)don't cut it at test level.Similarly our keeper should bat 7 so he knows his main job is to keep well!That's how we treated Gillie & the bonus is it let him bat with more freedom!So swap Moises to 6 & Wade/Haddin to 7.It seems simple but actually makes a big difference to the players mindsets.Personally I think Smith should be there as it's known he's a good player of spin & Swann is a quality spinner.I think Agar will come along & he can bat well in the lower order-at 19 he's a star in the making.My team: Cowan Warner Watto MC Kawaja Smith Wade Patto Starc Agar Bird-that's if Watto is bowling!

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