South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 4th day March 1, 2009

Feisty Hughes makes his mark


There was barely a dull moment during Phillip Hughes' first substantial Test innings © Getty Images
 

Phillip Hughes has taken over from his fellow left-hander Matthew Hayden as Australia's Test opener but that's about where the similarity ends. The pair couldn't be less physically alike and Hughes' first substantial innings at international level has also shown that, apart from having the confidence to go for his shots, his batting style bears little resemblance to that of his predecessor.

Hayden was big in every sense of the word and so imposing that when he walked at the bowler it was easy to imagine his thunderous presence opening up new cracks in the pitch. Hughes, at 170 centimetres, is so slight that on a particularly bad surface he could almost slip through one of those fissures. It shouldn't be any great surprise, then, that the men handle fast bowling rather differently.

It's hard to remember Hayden ever backing away from a bouncer; he preferred to hook or duck. Hughes, who edged behind when he flashed at a high, wide bouncer from Dale Steyn in the first innings, was heavily tested by short stuff in his second innings. The South Africans were surprised by his strange technique. As Steyn delivered a threatening barrage, Hughes shuffled backwards in a manner that brought to mind Stuart MacGill more than Matthew Hayden.

But while he backed away he wasn't backing down. Hughes was prepared to use the pace and cut over the cordon, which is a method he has employed since he played A-grade cricket at the age of 12 in the New South Wales town of Macksville. When the older fast bowlers would try to rattle the precocious kid with bouncers, Hughes refused to be bullied and regularly rocked back to slash them over the slips. Fast-forward eight years and not much has changed.

"I thought that was the outstanding part of it, that he did stand up for himself," Australia's coach Tim Nielsen said. "He took the challenge on, head on. They're good quality fast bowlers and they bowled fast and they bowled aggressively at him. There was obviously some bi-play going on out there and they were trying to get under his skin but he really hung in there and he was willing to take them on with some aggressive cricket."

That Hughes went on to post 75 in his second Test innings was a credit to his determination. His runs didn't come easily, nor prettily, but it was impossible to look away during his 159-minute innings. He is particularly strong square of the wicket and when he was given width he cut with reckless abandon, sometimes through point if not over the cordon. Balls were driven uppishly wide of fielders and there was barely a dull moment during his charmed existence.

Twice Hughes was caught behind off his gloves from Morne Morkel bouncers but both times he was reprieved by the umpire Billy Bowden and the South African captain Graeme Smith, who wasn't certain enough to ask for referrals. At 20, Hughes is a year younger than Smith was when he made his Test debut. While the two men were in the middle locked in battle, Nielsen felt as though he was watching a raw version of the South African captain.

"I wouldn't be surprised in the future if you see Phillip Hughes playing similar roles to what Graeme Smith does for South Africa as an opening batsman," Nielsen said. "He's going to be a pugnacious, strong backfoot player that's willing to take on any contest and he's shown that in his first Test today."

 
 
"I wouldn't be surprised in the future if you see Phillip Hughes playing similar roles to what Graeme Smith does for South Africa as an opening batsman. He's going to be a pugnacious, strong backfoot player that's willing to take on any contest"Tim Nielsen
 

When Hughes brought up his half-century with one of his most conventional shots, a terrific off-drive to the boundary off Morkel, he was congratulated by his partner and captain Ricky Ponting. After Hughes acknowledged the crowd's applause, Ponting made a special point of walking up to his new colleague and handing out some advice. Whatever it was, it didn't seem to include a smile.

But there must have been plenty of happy faces in Macksville, where Hughes was raised in a banana-farming family. It's a small town between Sydney and Brisbane that prompted the travel writer Bill Bryson to write: "It is possible, I suppose, to construct hypothetical circumstances in which you would be pleased to find yourself, at the end of a long day, in Macksville." Bryson went on to clarify that it wouldn't be his feeling in the normal course of events.

At the end of a long day on Thursday, the locals weren't too happy either. They had been promised free beer at one of the town's pubs for as long as Hughes' first innings lasted. Four balls gave them barely long enough to get to the front of the queue at the bar. At least when he scored his half-century in the second innings it was during prime-time in Australia, even if the beer wasn't free.

When he slammed Paul Harris over midwicket for six it looked like he might have enough luck on his side to join Marcus North in scoring a century on debut. But his fortune soon ran out. Hughes glanced a catch to leg slip later in the same over and walked off having shown his tremendous talent but also some potential weaknesses.

He'll never play just like Hayden, who before the tour advised Hughes to "be himself". Nor will he ever look like the mountainous Smith, but if he increases the batting resemblance to South Africa's captain that so impressed his coach, Hughes will be a supremely valuable man for years to come.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo