Australia in South Africa 2013-14 February 7, 2014

Phillip Hughes plays the long game

At the start of his mid-life novel Big Sur, Jack Kerouac wrestled with the perception created by the runaway success of On the Road. "All over America high school and college kids are thinking Jack Kerouac is 26 years old and on the road hitch-hiking, while there I am, almost 40 years old, bored and jaded..."

Phillip Hughes' first visit to South Africa in 2009 created a similar difficulty. Those transcendent days five years ago had him clattering Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and co to all parts of Johannesburg and Durban, earning breathless raves like this one from Angus Fraser: "It is an unfair comparison to make at his stage of career but I feel he is a bit like Brian Lara."

It was unfair. It still is. All over Australia and South Africa cricket followers think Hughes is 20 years old, fearless and outside leg stump cutting, when he is actually past 25, wizened and cautious about a future far less certain than it seemed when he posted his second century of a triumphant Kingsmead Test match. The young man in a hurry is now an older one slightly less so, clear in his memories of that first tour but eager to move beyond them.

"It's definitely a tour I'll never, ever forget. It was my first time on the big stage and receiving my baggy green from Ricky Ponting on the morning of the first Test in Jo'burg, and they're times I'll cherish for the rest of my life," Hughes told ESPNcricinfo. "To be only 20 at that stage was something that was really exciting at the time, and five years down the track it all happened very fast.

"I was young and fresh and coming off quite a solid season for New South Wales then in four-day cricket, so I had confidence behind me with the four-day form. To jump up to the next level is very different, but I didn't think a lot and just went out there and played with freedom. That series it happened to come off. I like to look forward and not back, those are fond memories I'll always remember, but I love to look forward."

Hughes' return to South Africa for a third visit after 2009 and 2011 very nearly did not happen. Despite a prolific start to the Sheffield Shield season for South Australia, fulfilling the wishes of the selectors after they dropped him during last year's Ashes series in England, Hughes was left out for Shaun Marsh, who had usurped him less by runs than by appearances, with perhaps the faintest whiff of T20 form taken into consideration due to the lopsided summer schedule.

"It can be challenging with the formats but that's how it is in this day and age, the more cricket you play in all forms and the more you can learn to adapt quicker," Hughes said. "I've found that - coming off Big Bash doesn't really matter because at the back of my mind I still had red ball there, and the red ball form with SA meant the confidence was still high."

When the squad was announced, Hughes was momentarily stunned, and sought sanctuary on his family's Macksville banana farm in country New South Wales. It is a place of familiar refuge for Hughes, like the cabin that Kerouac returns to three times over the course of Big Sur. He returned to Sydney briefly for the Allan Border Medal, at which he spoke at some length with the national coach Darren Lehmann about where he stood.

"When it comes from a selector and coach it's a pleasing thing," Hughes said. "When it comes from outside it doesn't mean as much but it means a lot from a selector or head coach. When I didn't get picked Darren and I had a really good chat about things in Sydney and he was really good about things moving forward and gave me really good confidence. When I walked away from that chat I felt really good about things."

As much as these words helped, Hughes remained uncertain about what lay ahead, and returned to Macksville. It was there that news of Marsh's latest leg muscle injury reached him, closely followed by a call from the national selector John Inverarity to say he was now on standby for South Africa. Having returned to Adelaide for some hopeful net sessions, confirmation of his flight to the republic followed soon after.

"That's the career of a sportsman I suppose," he said. "I've been through a lot of highs and lows through my career and it's about pushing forward. In the first place not getting selected here you're disappointed, but the next day you've got to move forward and look to get better. I got a few days back home with the family and spent some quality time on the farm.

"Then I got a call from John Inverarity that I was on standby so I ducked back to South Australia and prepared just in case I was coming here. It was really unfortunate for Shaun with his injury and I called him before I came over here. But I suppose that's sport, and it's given myself an opportunity to come over and be with the squad."

Largely as a result of his 2009 exploits, Hughes has always carried an expectation with him that he will flower again with similarly spectacular effect. His struggles in England later that year, against New Zealand in 2011, in India in 2013 and at Lord's later that same year have been weighed against the sense that no young batsman with Hughes' appetite for hundreds will forever languish in the shadow of his first series.

Such thoughts have at times clouded Hughes, as his bush technique has faced no end of examinations and his confidence has ebbed and flowed across seasons, states and continents. But he has now reached an age and a mindset that is less concerned by attaining his former peak than working assiduously and methodically to build a platform for the next one. Not playing a Test on this tour, for instance, would not bother him, provided he stays in the frame.

"I'm very realistic going forward and just being in this squad is where I need to be," Hughes said. "Playing or not playing I'm happy to be in the squad and helping out the guys wherever needed. It doesn't bother me about what happens here, I'm not looking too far ahead.

"Consistency is a big thing for me having been in and out of the team. When I get another crack I really want to try to be as consistent as I possibly can be. I feel the red ball cricket for South Australia has definitely been my most consistent season so far, which is pleasing, and that's something I'll continue to improve on. If I do get a crack hopefully I can cement myself in the team down the track. For now though I'm happy to be here in the squad."

Kerouac never did manage to transcend the impact of On the Road, and has been remembered forever as the 26-year-old hitch hiker he grew tired of embodying. Hughes has much work ahead to improve on his first series, but he now seems far less hurried about doing so, and less troubled by a desire to match up to his younger self.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here