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August 24, 2011
Phillip Hughes is determined to play his own way against Sri Lanka, having learnt that even the best-intentioned coaching advice can lead to muddled thoughts and meagre scores.
As he prepares to partner Shane Watson following the traumatic removal of Simon Katich from the list of Cricket Australia contracts, Hughes is honing more or less the same technique he took into his debut against South Africa in early 2009.
That series, in which Hughes topped the Australian aggregates and blazed two centuries to help a young side to an unexpected series win, did not dissuade observers from tinkering with the idiosyncratic technique that reaped those rewards.
He has cut a more orthodox but less-convincing figure at the international batting crease ever since, starting with the Ashes series later that year in which a couple of hot spells from Andrew Flintoff were enough to see Hughes jettisoned after only two Tests.
"Through that time there were a lot of people who came in to try to give advice, but I just had to go back to my game and play the way I've always played," Hughes said. "I might've gone off it a little bit, but that's all part of learning and the experience of it all. There are things I'm going to have to tinker with, with my technique, but as a whole I'll keep it how I've always played."
During the last Ashes series Hughes was chosen to replace the injured Katich, and retained for three Tests, when clearly short of runs and confidence. Picked when he should have been dropped, and dropped when he should have been picked, Hughes sought solace in the advice of his first mentor, Neil D'Costa, who is now employed at a cricket academy in Nagpur.
"I worked even harder in the nets - the Ashes series was disappointing, so I went back and just worked harder and Neil D'Costa flew from India back to Australia and we spent time together," Hughes said. "We got down to the nets basically every day for two weeks, a couple hours a day, worked as hard as I've ever worked, and things turned around.
"I hadn't seen Neil for a fair few months - he'd been in India - and it was just good to have someone there who's been there [for me] the whole way; [and for me to] to come back to Australia and work as hard as possible with Neil. He knows my game quite well now and he's been coach/mentor the last five or six years for me, so getting back was good and beneficial."
The balance seems finally to have been redressed ahead of the Test series between Australia and Sri Lanka, for Hughes enters the tour having carved out a handsome tally of runs for New South Wales and Australia A since the Ashes. Reflecting on the last summer, Hughes agreed he might have been helped by more runs behind him when he walked out to bat in the third Test in Perth.
"It would've been better, but I was excited when I did get selected, and to play the last three Ashes Tests was a huge thrill, but also disappointing … it would've been nice to get more runs, no doubt about that," Hughes said. "I wasn't in the best form then, I was in better form towards the back-end of the season, but that's cricket; especially opening the batting you knick off a few times and you get a few starts and you want to make those into big scores. It wasn't to be in the Ashes series."
While extremely angry about the manner of his exit, Katich bore no ill-will towards Hughes, and the pair remain on good terms in a relationship that began when the younger batsman was a teenager in the NSW squad.
"My debut game for Australia [in South Africa] was with Simon, and I'll always remember the time Simon gave me back in NSW when I was only 17-18, going into the squad and what he did personally for me," Hughes said. "I did [feel sorry for him], that was a while ago now, decisions that people have got to make, and I'm not one of those, I've just got to control what I can control, but it was disappointing and I was feeling for Simon at the time."
Sorrow for Katich had been preceded by some shock, for Hughes had fully expected Katich to regain his place at the top of the batting order following an Achilles injury. He publicly stated that his goal was to be the reserve batsman on tour.
"I've said that for the last couple of years when I got dropped," Hughes said. "I've always wanted to be that spare batsman on tour and be that next guy in. I've been lucky enough the last couple of years on tour to be that spare batsman, and now comes the opportunity I've always wanted. [After] getting dropped I'd get itchier and more keen to get back in there, knowing I've had a taste of Test cricket."
That hunger will now be sated, although in conditions far removed from anything Hughes has encountered at Test level before. He has spoken a lot to Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and the assistant coach Justin Langer about handling spin, seeking out the kind of advice that will help, not hinder, his latest tilt at international batsmanship.
"I've played on the subcontinent before but not for Australia. I've been to India a lot but it's different - it's Test cricket, and it's going to be tough, we all know that," Hughes said. "But that's why we've got guys like Pup [Clarke] and Punter [Ponting] in our team.
"They faced spin bowling beautifully in the one-day games so I've spoken to them as much as possible … but it's about getting out there and doing the work. I'm a huge fan of Justin, he's a great coach, so I'll just go out and do as much work as possible, and hopefully it pays off."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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