Hughes confident he won't short out
Phillip Hughes is sick of defending his play against the short ball, but unless he can prove to England's fast men that he can cope over the next week, the questions will keep coming on and off the field. Last year Hughes started the Ashes tour as Australia's wonder child and left it with the reputation of being weak against bouncers.
Steve Harmison roughed Hughes up in a tour match and then handed over the duties to Andrew Flintoff as they had him hopping even more awkwardly than usual with his jumpy, country-made technique. He was dropped after two Tests and has played only two games since then, with the high being a frenetic 86 not out against New Zealand. Simon Katich's heel injury has allowed him a chance at Ashes redemption.
"I've heard this the last three years of my career," Hughes said of the problems with the short ball. "I've heard about it all along and I'm not worried about it at all. Being a short opening batsman, [the bowlers] like it up around your ears and face as much as they can. Often it's not the short balls that get you out, it's the follow-up balls, but that's something I've always heard."
It should sound familiar because that's what happened to him when Flintoff got him last year for 36 in Cardiff and 17 at Lord's. The bouncers didn't dismiss him, but the fuller ones that came after forced his unbalanced body into a couple of edges. Flintoff has retired and Hughes feels much more comfortable facing a line-up of James Anderson, Steven Finn and, probably, Chris Tremlett.
"They're going to come out firing and they did in the Ashes series last year as well, but then they had Flintoff who was their x-factor bowler," Hughes said after training at the WACA. "He was outstanding in that series and he bowled beautifully."
Hughes was replaced for the third Test by Shane Watson, who quickly showed he could be converted into an opening batsman. It was the first bump in Hughes' explosive career and since then he has had to wait for injuries to Watson and Katich to get a chance. This time he knows he has three games to make a sustained mark.
"I lost my spot in England during the last Ashes series and that was disappointing at the time," he said. "In the back of my mind I remember losing that series and that was disappointing, so I've come in and I'm all smiles at the moment and I'm happy to be around the guys again. I can't wait to get out there and just enjoy cricket. I'm happier this time than I was the first time."
Hughes is still only 22 and owns a couple of hundreds in the same Test against the mighty South Africa, but he enters this campaign based more on a hunch than statistics. He has only 201 first-class runs for the season, which is well below his standard, and the haul was boosted by his 81 for Australia A against England's second string attack last month.
"Mentally I feel really good and I'm hitting them good in the nets, which is always a good sign," Hughes said. "It's been disappointing for New South Wales, I haven't really got that big score under my belt. But I've got a lot of starts over the last couple of weeks."
Starts have been a problem for Australia during the opening two games of this series and are partly responsible for them being 1-0 behind. Despite Hughes' flaws, he remains an exciting batsman and has won comparisons to Virender Sehwag at times during his seven Tests of slashing, slicing and edging.
"That's how I've always played, I've been quite aggressive especially the last few years and that's my natural game and something I'm not going to change over the next few years," he said. "I love watching Sehwag play, without a doubt he comes to my mind straight away as an opening batsman.
"Yes he's very aggressive, but what Sehwag can do is he can take a game away from any opposition." Hughes has done that regularly with New South Wales since debuting as an 18-year-old, but is still working out whether the same approach can succeed at the highest level.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo