Australia's fidgety opening batsman Phillip Hughes may be the best thing going for a battling New Zealand outfit right now. After Chris Martin had Hughes dropped in the slips from a typical edge, then caught in the gully from a flailing cut next ball in the hosts' chase of a mere 19 to wrap up the first Test, the visiting captain Ross Taylor said of the Australia squad for Hobart: "I'd love him to be in the team."
This was a damning statement, but a true one, for Martin's bounce and angle caused Hughes all manner of trouble in both innings, and allowed New Zealand a way into the Australian batting order. The national selectors must make a difficult call on Hughes sooner or later, and Taylor's enthusiasm about the 23-year-old as an opponent, when most err towards the respectful when discussing the opposition, will be ringing in their ears.
"If Hughes plays in Tasmania then obviously Chris Martin will be bowling at him and hopefully Martin Guptill takes a third catch too," Taylor said. "We had a lot of video footage of all the Australian players and Hughes got caught at second, third slip and gully a lot in the Ashes and in South Africa. That was definitely an area we wanted to target, and with the way Chris Martin bowls, he bowls across the left-hander."
Since returning to the Australian XI during the Ashes last summer, Hughes has spent countless hours working with the assistant coach Justin Langer, trying to eradicate the problems outside off stump that have recurred all too often against diligent new ball bowling. But he remains as susceptible as ever to the presentation of a crooked bat and a resultant edge to the slips, accounting for a Test record that features three centuries but too many brief stays at the crease. In 17 innings since the Ashes recall, Hughes has passed 36 only twice.
Hughes' position is complicated further by the fact that the captain, Michael Clarke, is his staunchest defender in public and his closest friend in the team. As a selector, Clarke is part of the discussions that must be edging closer to removing Hughes from the XI, but he is refusing to budge in his support.
"I look forward to a press conference where I don't get asked about Phillip Hughes," Clarke said after Australia's victory. "Once again, not concerning for me. I have confidence that Hughesy will come out in Hobart and perform. He got a hundred not that long ago, 80-odd not that long ago. I've seen Hughesy cut that ball for four a number of times. I'm sure he would be disappointed personally that he hasn't made any runs in this test match, but I'm confident he can put his hand up in Hobart and get a big score for us."
Clarke said he had seen plenty of improvement in Hughes' technique since his first bout of problems, against Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff in England in 2009.
"I think his technique has improved out of sight," Clarke said. "Every one of us has deficiencies in technique. And these days with the footage you can get on players, it's very easy to find out what those deficiencies are. It's no different for any batsman. I have seen a lot of improvement. I continue to see him scoring runs. Probably not as consistent as he would like, but he's still scoring them. His record for NSW is better than any 23-year-old in this country. He's scored three great hundreds for Australia and I'm confident he can score a lot more."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo