England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 1st day August 1, 2013

Forgotten Phil watches his captain's mastery

Cast aside once again, Phillip Hughes sat in the pavilion and watched Michael Clarke play an elegant innings of the purest timing

One full day watching Australia bat - a novelty in itself this series - and the mind kept wandering to the Australian dressing-room where Phillip Hughes sat watching too. Forgotten Phil. I was there in Durban when he made two hundreds in the match, a free spirit set free. I was there in Sydney when, on a difficult pitch, in a Sheffield Shield match that mattered, he made a hundred that lifted the heart. And I heard about a score of 90-odd in Hobart, on an impossible pitch, with which even the meanest critic could find no fault.

But these innings were four and five years ago. There have been further highlights since and many lowlights too. The Hughes we see today is a shadow of the stroke-maker back then. He has become a cricketer ripe for the sack, a sitting duck for a selectorial whim. What to do next lads, they wonder. Simple, drop Hughesy.

Of the great pities surrounding the Australian team right now, Hughes is the greatest. Rare talent is just that, rare. An eagle eye and fast hands need a calm and clear head to prosper. The unbeaten 81 at Trent Bridge was an excellent innings, thoughtful and inspirational. Because of it, the match might have been won. It is cruel to make him suffer for one poor match at Lord's.

Call it third-Test syndrome. Third Test, Ashes 2009; Hughes dropped. Third Test, Ashes 2010-11; Hughes recalled. Third Test, Ashes 2013; Hughes dropped. Up and down the order, in and out of the side. A whipping boy made more fragile still. The only way with Hughes is to run with it for a while. Here is your slot, Mr Hughes, fill it or be damned. The selectors should stick with him long enough to be sure, one or the other. The present situation is a head screw for everyone.

Therefore, the innings played by his captain, Michael Clarke, warrants greater than the usual respect. Clarke aches for Hughes, for he is a protégé of sorts. There is something of himself in the lad, another young talent out of the Western Sydney District Club who is chasing the world stage. But Clarke cannot make his runs for him and, now that he is no longer a selector, cannot ensure that he gets in the side either. It is the Australian captain's conundrum. On the one hand it is his team, on the other it is not.

On that point, it seems unlikely Clarke would have let David Warner disappear to southern Africa. But it was not for him to influence the decision. Now that he is back, in form and picked to play, where should he bat? That, apparently, is Clarke's decision. No. 6 is the choice.

Clarke's golden 2012 came from many an unpromising position. The team were three down for next to nothing more often than Bangladesh. He responded with a 300, a couple of doubles and some plain old hundreds. The scorebooks will tell you that the bloke at the other end was central to the completion of these marvellous innings. Mike Hussey at No. 6 was Clarke's godsend, his given, his death and taxes. Perhaps the captain thinks he can lead Warner to the same waters of certainty.

All of these things and more sit heavily on the captain. Ashes defeats are numbing and lead to recrimination, both of self and the whole. Six consecutive Test defeats is the stuff of legend, the most undesirable legend. Clarke has to sleep with this stuff on his mind and when he wakes it is still there. He has to talk to the press about the problem and about unravelling it. He must justify, explain, inform and inspire. He must pat backs and kick butts. He knows that a chunk of Australia still finds itself unable to trust him. He is accused of being divisive and political. And all the while, he must find a way to smile, to make runs and to keep an eye out for fellows such as Phil Hughes.

Martin Crowe used to call the peripherals "traffic". You cannot, he would say, bat with traffic. Yesterday Clarke proved the great Kiwi wrong. How Crowe must have loved this innings. An early scrap, an increasing presence, four singles from 96 to a hundred - no stress there - and a later flourish. It was an innings crafted by a beautifully straight bat, an elegant form and the purest timing. With him for 318 balls, three hours and 40 minutes and 174 runs was his Mike Hussey of the moment, Steve Smith, who played the Test match hand of his life. Smith is not an obvious choice to bat at No. 5 for Australia. He is fidgety, sometimes floppy. But he showed something substantial of his himself yesterday, something on which to build.

Clarke, of course, is an obvious choice to bat at No. 4. He needed one serious innings to convince himself of this. Of the truly great batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar, Greg Chappell and Graeme Pollock are three who were locked in at No. 4. From here you can make the play, rather than respond to it. You can go through the gears yourself while guiding others down your road. If this innings does nothing else, and god forbid that, it must ensure that Clarke is at No. 4 to stay. An order can be built around him at this time to look forward.

One day, Clarke will look back and privately evaluate his performances. The hundred he made against a rampant Andrew Flintoff at Lord's in 2009 will be high on his list but it came in a losing cause. The double in Adelaide against South Africa last November was a gem but led only to a painful draw. This one, this little unbeaten baby of his, just might lead to something more startling - a win against all odds. If that were so, it would reach No. 1 in his charts.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Richie on August 2, 2013, 21:31 GMT

    As usual, a great article from Mr Nicholas. I've never really warmed to Clarke, but his performances over the last few years stamp his as one of Australia's greats ... the heart of Border, the grace of Chappell and the dominance of Ponting.

  • Scott on August 2, 2013, 18:47 GMT

    @mondotv, not really sure what you're talking about as Hughes did nail shield cricket, which is why he keeps making it difficult not to select him when his run scoring ability at FC level is there for all to see. IN fact, he's prolific in FC cricket and is well ahead of any other. @salazar, Clarke's avg of around 52 after his length in the game already proves that he's not only world class, but amongst those considered the greats. Not saying he's a great, but if he continues in the same way he did in '12 and with scores like today, he's not far from it, mate. @Moppa, why would it be at the expense of Watson rather than Rogers, who let's be fair, is a temporary solution to our problems at the top of the order? Sorry, but Rogers has to go and we need to look forward and I think Rogers should've been replaced by Warner, despite his v good innings. This was a belter of a track and Hughes SHOULD feel aggrieved not to have had a chance to score well here...

  • James on August 2, 2013, 18:03 GMT

    @RPShivkumar, Jees. Hughes is 24, a great talent that has the potential to be a really great batsman, Cowan is a 31 year oldd who just isn't good enough and never will be. I'm against this whole "you must score runs to be in the side" when your trying to BUILD a team not maintain one. Australia must strike a balance between trying to be competitive and potentially win this Ashes AND building towards the future.

    I Personally would have left Davey warner out of the side, and if i REALLY had to dtop anyone it would be Rogers, not because of performance but just future planning.

  • Christopher on August 2, 2013, 12:49 GMT

    I wonder when someone will privately discuss with him, what took place when Hughes joined the Ashes squad in '09. As good as they were, Flintoff & co. weren't in the same league as the SA attack that Hughes crushed. In his preceding 10 matches, Hughes had scored 1637 runs at 96 with 8 centuries on 3 continents, including almost 600 runs for Middlesex in 3 matches. He arrived for the Ashes with a Test ave of 69 & a 1st Class ave of 62. It was clear that his game had been significantly altered for the 1st Test. None of the bowling that challenged him from that point had done so previously. His mentor, DeCosta stated publicly that he was,'forced to prepare in a way that was unsuited to him.' Who ordered it? His hands and feet became slow and many of his scoring options evaporated. He's perished on the pyre of 'technique'since. A batsman needs only an attacking & defensive plan & the courage, skill & stamina to enact it. Technique is a diversion. I consider Hughes a rare genius & tragedy.

  • Stephen on August 2, 2013, 12:47 GMT

    David Hussey was hard done by. Brad Hodge was hard done by. Chris Rogers has been hard done by. Phil Hughes has not been hard done by.

  • mau on August 2, 2013, 12:35 GMT

    Strange article. Rare Talent?? Based on two innings? why all this support? He has got 26 test matches and avgs 32! Out of his 49 test innngs, he has been out for single digits or in teens a whopping 27 times ( more than 50%). He is terrible in technique. He is a sitting duck against spin and pace. Do you have the same sympathy for Hodge, Law, D Hussey etc? Instead of Hughes, guys like Khawaja, Fergusson, Forrest or Voges should have got 26 test matches. Fortunately Aussies picked Smith over Hughes for this test and look what happened.

  • Mark on August 2, 2013, 11:19 GMT

    Congratulations to Capt Micheal Clarke and Australia. This is the Australia we want to see. Sure they will never be as good as the side of the late 1990s, but this side is not as bad as was shown in the first two tests. They certainly are in my opinion equal in ability and cricketing skill with the current England side. Really we have two teams. England and Australia which are almost identical in strength. Really if Australia play well or to their potential they could beat England in the next three matches in close contests. Then Australia will have home advantage when they move to Australia. Australia always very well in their own conditions, cricketing arena's and their own passionate crowds, who love to see Australia win, especially against England. For an aussie every Ashes series is their own American revolutionary war against England.

  • Ray on August 2, 2013, 9:38 GMT

    @dunger.bob on (August 2, 2013, 7:09 GMT): "metro-sexual" and "Australian" mentioned in the same breathe. Jeez mate; you'll be telling me next that not all Australians live in the bush and fight crocs :)

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2013, 9:32 GMT

    England missed the opportunity to introduce Tremlett and Panesar into the attack.I venture to suggest that the scoreline at stumps would have been very different if our best bowling attack had played.