Hughes cool and calm ahead of debut
A few weeks ago Phillip Hughes received a simple piece of advice from the man who on Thursday he will replace at the top of Australia's Test line-up. Matthew Hayden was having a quiet beer with his 20-year-old successor when he told him that when he takes the field in his first Test he should "just be yourself".
It was the same tip Michael Hussey received when he went out to bat on his Test debut, although the mentor on that occasion was Shane Warne, standing at a toilet in his underpants with a cigarette in hand. It's a fair bet Hayden was fully-clothed when he handed out his words of wisdom. The naturally composed Hughes probably didn't need the advice but the source was important to him.
When Hayden made his Test debut, Hughes was five years old. Hayden went on to become one of the most successful Test openers of all time but it was in part the dominance of Hughes at state level this year that contributed to pressure building on Hayden to retire from the Test arena. Hughes said it had only recently started to sink in that he was replacing one of the icons of Australia's modern era.
"When I first got on the plane with all the guys, that's when it really sank in," Hughes said. "That was about a week later after I'd got the call-up. Matthew Hayden has been great for Australian cricket, he's played at the top level for so many years. It's great to be here and I think it's only just sunk in.
"I heard from him just before I came over. I actually had a quiet beer with him at a function for the Steve Waugh Foundation. He was there and we had a quiet little chat there. He said, 'just be yourself'. We just had a chat about life and cricket and a few things. He just told me to keep it simple and play how I normally play."
That's exactly what Hughes did in his first match for Australia, the tour game at Potchefstroom, where he made a confident 24 in the first innings before going on to post a half-century in the second. He was still struggling to believe some of the names he was playing with, including the captain Ricky Ponting, who made his Test debut when Hughes was seven.
"[It was a] great experience, to play alongside the likes of Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke," Hughes said. "Five years ago I was sitting back in the lounge room watching these guys. Now to get out there and play with them and mingle with them, it's been great fun."
Australia could have as many as three or four debutants at the Wanderers on Thursday but Hughes is the only one whose place is certain. The travelling selector David Boon has been impressed by the way such a young man has handled the pressure in the lead-up to the first Test.
"He seems pretty calm about it all, he's quiet," Boon said. "You would expect that around the dressing room, around the players, but you can see an intent with it, you can see that he always appears to be thinking about the game, thinking about his role and what he's going to do. He's attuned to what his game is and he doesn't try to go outside of it."
Hughes embarked on the tour with a first-class average of more than 60 and an especially good sign was his ability to make big scores in important situations. The most notable came in the Pura Cup final last season, when he helped New South Wales to victory and became the youngest man to score a century in an Australian first-class decider.
"That was a massive deal," Hughes said. "I think I'd played six first-class games going into that game. I had six fifties under my belt with no century. The press were saying can he do it or whatnot, and to get the big one on that stage was very exciting. The Aussie guys like Michael Clarke and Katto [Katich] were back then, so it was a great time to play with those guys."
Simon Katich will be beside Hughes when they walk out to face the music in the first innings in Johannesburg, where Hughes has volunteered to take strike against the opening delivery. No doubt there will be a few nerves as Dale Steyn runs in with the new ball in hand but Hughes has spent the past few weeks analysing the South African attack.
"In Australia obviously I was just watching them on TV, watching them go about their stuff," he said. "And now I'm definitely watching them on tape. The main thing is just talking to the likes of Ricky Ponting and all the batsmen, all the guys in the side to see how they go about approaching playing them."
All will be revealed when the Test starts on Thursday. One thing that is certain is that Hughes will be himself.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo