Hughes comes of age
One of the recurring themes of Michael Hussey's career was that many of his finest innings were overshadowed by someone else. Whether it was Michael Clarke cracking 329 not out against India or 259 and 230 against South Africa or Adam Gilchrist murdering England in his 102 at the WACA ground in 2006, Hussey was often cast as a minor character in his own life story. Possessing a tremendous ability to complement the batsman at the other end in whatever way was most required, Hussey thrived on partnerships, even if it meant playing the accomplice to Jason Gillespie when he had the cheek to turn a nightwatchman's shift into 201 against Bangladesh.
So it was for Phillip Hughes on a day of dreams at Trent Bridge. While Ashton Agar produced a performance that no one who witnessed it will ever forget, Hughes quietly crafted an innings that was arguably the best and most significant of his Test career. If Agar's display was one of the most striking examples of a selection hunch rewarding its architects, then Hughes' effort offered vindication of his retention in the team after a dire tour of India, as well as a remarkably promising glimpse of his batting future.
Where Agar walked out to bat with few expectations to live up to, and doubtless even fewer plans to counter among England's bowlers, Hughes faced up to opponents who had twice threatened to wreck him as an international batsman even before he had matured as a man. Five Ashes Tests spread across two series had reaped a meagre 154 runs at 17.11. Hughes' highest score in that time was 36. No wonder there was a quite palpable sense of English anticipation among the Nottingham crowd when he walked out to bat at 53 for 4 on the first evening.
Such a feeling had to be shared by James Anderson, Steven Finn, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann. After all, Hughes had been turned from a bright young batting hope to a jittery mess on his first encounter with England in 2009, and then skittered nervously and fruitlessly around the crease in Australia two years later. Nothing, it seemed, had underlined Australian flaws and English superiority more than the sight of Hughes struggling for traction against the aforementioned bowlers.
But Hughes has travelled far in his journey from boy to man since then, moving from New South Wales to South Australia, regaining confidence during a stint with Worcestershire last year, and finally accepting a commission to move down the batting order to No. 6. This change was most significant, changing Hughes' role from that of a top-order dasher to a more considered job holding the team's mid-section together. It was tested out during the tour matches, and a string of healthy scores suggested Hughes would be comfortable reacting to the circumstances that confronted him.
In his first attempt at the role, the scenario was dire indeed. Four wickets down for very little, the Dukes ball swinging and seaming, the crowd baying for more wickets, the Nottingham light dull and augmented by electricity. Accompanying Hughes in the middle was none other than Steven Smith, another young man from NSW who had been a figure of English ridicule in 2010-11. Both had tightened their techniques and bolstered their confidence since then, and both would go some way to proving it by establishing a stand that bridged evening with morning.
Hughes would lose Smith soon after the team tally had passed 100, amid another bewitching spell from Anderson. The wickets tumbled quickly, Australian groans matched by English glee. But for the first time, Hughes was not part of the procession. He survived, batting grimly but near enough to neatly, playing many balls under his nose and occasionally stretching out to drive. Leg-side deflections not in his repertoire two years ago allowed him to get off strike at regular intervals. And after the trials of India, Swann's spin and flight was handled in the kind of manner Steve Waugh fended off short balls for most of his 168 Tests - not much style, but plenty of guts.
A mere nine runs after Smith had fallen, Hughes was joined by Agar. The liquidation of the lower order had been swift and brutal. In his partner, Hughes perhaps saw a little of his younger self, Agar not knowing the fear or self-doubt that invariably envelops a cricketer when the first troughs of form and performance are encountered. The pair had never batted together before, and Hughes initially followed the received wisdom of most batsmen with the tail by attempting to farm the strike. How they must have chuckled about that later.
As time ticked by, however, Hughes began to show the kind of awareness that had made Hussey such a fine batting partner. Witnessing Agar's accomplishment, he did not worry about trying to dominate, and played comfortably in a most unexpected slipstream. Agar sprinted to his half-century in 50 balls; Hughes fought gamely to his in 94. He spread his wings a little more from that moment, driving and cutting through the off side with plenty of vigour but greater control than his younger self had demonstrated when commencing so boldly in South Africa. England, for the first time in their encounters with Hughes, did not appear entirely sure of how to dismiss him. Given what had gone before this was some achievement.
Ultimately, Agar would fall two runs short of his century, leaving Hughes 19 shy of his own. He offered a consoling word and pat on the back for Agar, before standing aside in respect to allow the 19-year-old wonder his moment of adulation from a crowd still getting to know him. Though they may not have noticed, those assembled at Trent Bridge had also witnessed a new man at the other end. The dancing, struggling, edging Hughes of the past was nowhere to be seen. In his place stood a batsman of far greater composure. Agar had earned a revered place in history, but he could not have done so without Hughes. Hussey would have been proud.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here