At the end of the Ashes season, the England captain who failed to regain them, and resigned his job as a result, looked back in an interview on it all: the good, the bad, the indigestible. In the course of it, Graham Gooch spoke of "dear old Merv Hughes". What? No matter that Gooch is eight years Hughes's senior. It is not the old that might send the moustaches twirling; it is the dear old. Whoever spoke of dear old Joel Garner at the end of a series in which he had taken 31 wickets, or dear old Dennis Lillee?
Perhaps it is the action. When many of us saw Hughes for the first time down at Arundel in 1989 on that blazing sunny day, there was a mixture of mirth and disbelief: the mincing little steps leading to a stuttering run, the absurd stove-pipe trousers, the pre-bowl calisthenics, the whiskers, the silent-movie bad-guy theatrics. The action is not much different today, although it might tend a little more towards out-swing and the googly variation is not used quite so often. The eyes above the hooked nose still glare with the same passion. Insults fly, though if Gooch is to be believed not especially imaginative or distressing ones, just a couple of words. Sometimes, too, a childlike smile appears, all perhaps indicating the man behind the moustache: pretty straightforward, not too gaudy.
Now Hughes has been involved in two Ashes tours, and in each he has taken key wickets at key times. Last summer, in the absence of the one man thought to separate the two sides in strike-power, Craig McDermott, Hughes showed that in fact it was he who was the difference in the seam-bowling department. If Shane Warne bowled the ball which launched a thousand paragraphs, Merv Hughes ground out the overs which gave Australia a decent front-line assault.
In the course of the summer, Hughes took his 200th Test wicket and passed the Test tallies of two Australian fast bowlers, Geoff Lawson and Jeff Thomson, the second legendary and the first deeply respected. In doing this, Hughes had a strike-rate roughly the equal of Thomson's and rather better than Lawson's. Yet, until recently, it was unthinkable that he would be mentioned as being in the same class as those two. He has paid a price for his eccentricities, not least not being taken seriously.
MERVYN GREGORY HUGHES was born in rural Victoria on November 23, 1961, son of a schoolmaster. In Australian education, country schoolteachers often are itinerants, and Merv and his family travelled around before they settled in Werribee, south-west of Melbourne. There Hughes was preoccupied, like all good young Victorian boys, with Australian Rules football in the winter and cricket in the summer. He boasts that he is the only man to have played 96 games for Werribee First XVIII and taken 200 Test wickets. To get to Werribee from Melbourne, you must drive through Footscray, which has both a senior football team and a first-grade cricket club. It was there that Hughes naturally gravitated.
At Footscray, Hughes came under the influence of two men who had short and bitter Test careers: fast bowler Ron Gaunt, who played three Tests in one-match stands between 1957 and 1961, and Ken Eastwood, a left-handed opening bat, who played just one, disastrously, in 1970. At Sheffield Shield level, though, both were outstanding and at Grade level prodigious. Furthermore, they epitomised Footscray. This is a working-class area in Melbourne's western suburbs and the Footscray footballers and cricketers are known to themselves and to the rest of the city - one which has sharp social divides - as Scraggers. If you are from outside Footscray, it is a jibe; if you are of Footscray, it is a boast. Merv Hughes was, is, always will be, a Scragger. In a way, the disappointments Gaunt and Eastwood felt have been reflected in Hughes's determination.
After Lillee and Thomson, there were always plenty of quicks off long runs around in Australia, sledging away and getting hit around the park bowling short on true wickets. Hughes ran - or minced - from the sight-screen, until wiser heads told him to cut his run. "It was simple enough," he said. "I was going to get the club fined for slow play." For the first time he learned that control was more important than sheer pace.
In the 1981-82 season Hughes made the Victorian side, and by 1985 he had been selected for Australia, playing one Test against Kapil Dev's touring Indians. He became almost, but not quite, a fixture. In 1989, Hughes came to England as the fourth seamer, behind Terry Alderman, Lawson and Carl Rackemann. An injury to Rackemann saw Hughes promoted, and he played all six Tests in a series dominated by Alderman. In the thrilling 1992-93 series against West Indies, Hughes took 20 wickets at 21.60, two more than McDermott and considerably cheaper. Yet he was still the second seamer when the party left for England, and had Bruce Reid been fit might have been the third.
The rest, as they say, is history. He took 31 wickets at 27.25, played an important innings of 38 at Edgbaston, dropped little and brilliantly helped run out Atherton at a crucial point of the Lord's Test. Recently married, he is now a sedate enough member of the side to have joined his captain in staying in the night the team went out at Leeds to celebrate the successful defence of the Ashes. Allan Border's eyes crinkle with affection when he sees the Big Bloke come into the bar. Hughes is one of Border's élite. He was, quite literally, exhausted by the end of the tour, but he could go back to Footscray as one proud Scragger.