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Feature

Why Merv Hughes' name has passed into legend

Risking an early end to his career, the fast bowler declined knee surgery to play through the 1993 Ashes series

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
02-Feb-2021
Imagine a fast bowler in 2020, halfway through an Ashes tour, facing the fact that a degenerative knee problem was likely to contribute to an early end to their career unless they went home to face surgery. In this day and age of sports science and data-driven decisions, it would barely be a debate - off to Heathrow.
Twenty-seven years ago, Merv Hughes faced just such a dilemma in the midst of an Ashes campaign where he was the manful spearhead of an Australian attack that, while blessed with the abundant talents of a young Shane Warne, was also down to its final four bowlers for long stretches of a tour that began in April and stretched into early September. Fortunately for Australia, but damagingly for the remainder of Hughes' playing days, he says now that never considered accepting the offer of an early flight home and the attendant career-lengthening rehab.
At the end of the third Test, Hughes had knee trouble as well as a groin strain, and spent nine days on his own in London with the team physio Errol Alcott, working assiduously to improve his fitness in order to play the final three Tests. When the knee began playing up again over the final two Tests, putting Hughes in agony when he climbed stairs and forcing him into a limp whenever he wasn't actually bowling, team-mates began to realise the cost. Hughes had, in the words of his biographer Patrick Keane, "given more than anyone had a right to expect."
It was not as though Hughes' early exit from the series could not be covered: the likes of Jo Angel, Damien Fleming and Joe Scuderi were all in England at the time to play league cricket, and Mike Whitney was working as both a commentator for Channel Nine and a more-than-occasional net bowler to the tourists. Hughes, though, was committed to leading the bowling attack and paying back his captain Allan Border for the faith he had shown in him over the years before.
Perhaps only Ryan Harris since then has come close to the extremes Hughes went through in carrying his troublesome knee through the six Tests, scooping 31 wickets and playing a huge hand in a 4-1 series victory. Undoubtedly, Hughes paid a personal price for his commitment to the team and the tour, playing only two more Tests thereafter, in South Africa the following year. This selflessness was key to why Hughes was an integral part of the Australian side of the Border era, and a worthy inductee to the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame.
"I had a bit of knee trouble, I think it was made out to be a lot worse than it actually was," Hughes said, self-effacingly, on Tuesday. "Errol Alcott was the team physio and I trusted every word he said, he was one of my best mates when I played to be honest, but when he said you're going to have a little bit of pain but it's not going to get any worse, that's where it was. I had the option to go home, yes, halfway through it, and if I had to make the same decision again I wouldn't change it. To be on that tour from start to finish was very rewarding.
"I think '94 in South Africa was reward for contribution to Australian cricket. I thank the Australian selectors for that. But I'd come off an injury, there were some young guys coming through and I was very fortunate to get on that tour and by the end of that tour you had blokes like Glenn McGrath and Paul Reiffel coming through, and when they're 10 years younger, the writing's on the wall. Ultimately I don't think things would've changed - probably the only thing that may have changed is I may have played a few more years of first-class cricket, but that didn't eventuate.
"The guys coming through were putting pressure on the old fella in the team and the old fella in the team couldn't cope that well."
Repeatedly over his time in the Australian side, Hughes came through with big performances and big wickets, particularly in Ashes series and over several increasingly competitive bouts with the great West Indies teams of the period. After an initial phase when Hughes' qualities were doubted by some, his quirky hat-trick over three overs at the WACA in 1988, and then heroic match figures of 13 for 217 either side of Geoff Lawson having his jaw broken by Curtly Ambrose, dispelled all reservations about whether there was real substance beneath his caricature moustache and beer belly.
"That's where you really get measured, isn't it, you don't get measured by doing well against weaker teams," Hughes said. "So to come up against that West Indies team having lost the first Test match ... it was a great personal achievement but I think we lost that Test match by about 200 runs [169 runs], so the disappointment of the loss of the Test match overrode the emotion of a great personal achievement.
"But the hat-trick, you try to explain to people that you didn't know you were on a hat-trick, and people look you and go 'mate, a hat-trick's three wickets in three balls', I know that, but when it's over three overs, over two days and two innings and Tim May takes a wicket in between your first and second wicket, you tend to lose it. Plus with the emotion about Geoff Lawson being hit late on the day when we went back into bowling on the third day, to bowl for 20 minutes, I think you're going to get fired up as a fast bowler anyway.
"When you've seen one of your team-mates being hit, there's just a little bit of extra spice to it. The eight-for was against a very good side, but ultimately if Geoff Lawson hadn't been injured, I probably would've bowled half the overs and if you bowl half the overs you take half the wickets."
A spray of invective at the third of his hat-trick victims, Gordon Greenidge, was an example of the aggressive and often ugly way in which Hughes expressed himself on the field, the archetypal angry fast bowler who would use the short ball and his vocabulary to get under an opponent's skin. Between these tendencies and constant battles with his waistline - at one point he infamously stomped on and shattered a new set of scales when asked to weigh himself - Hughes was a cricketer of his time, but with determination and courage to stand up in any era.
Hughes drew immense personal satisfaction from the fact that the Australian team was constantly improving during his time in it, from the depths of the mid-1980s when the rebel tours of Apartheid South Africa had stripped the national cricket system of many of its established players, to the time when Hughes played his last Test in 1994 as part of an XI about to finally topple the West Indies and become the world's best the following year. Later a national selector, Hughes has remained a consistent presence whether through tour groups or occasional commentary.
"It was a tough time and people talk about that '85 rebel tour to South Africa, and that came on top of just rebuilding from World Series Cricket in the late '70s, so as Australia started to get back on their feet, that rebel tour came along," Hughes said. "Fortunately for Australia Allan Border was appointed captain, Bob Simpson look over as coach and Laurie Sawle was appointed chairman of selectors. Those three blokes deserve a lot of credit for where Australian cricket got to.
"They had a game plan and it was short-term pain for long-term gain and they picked a heap of young blokes and identified some young talent, picked a couple of guys who had the reputation of being tough and uncompromising and they had that senior core of players that led the way. The thing I look back on most satisfied with is that I played in an ever-improving Australian team. We didn't quite get to the top of the tree when I was playing, but I look back at it with great satisfaction that we pushed the West Indies.
"We pushed them in '91 and the thing I probably hold closest is I think we were the first team to beat the West Indies in Antigua. They hadn't lost in Antigua, it was Viv Richards' last Test match on his home ground, and we got up and had a win there. I firmly believe at that stage was when we as a collective group of Australian players started to think we could match it with the West Indies."
As for what team-mates thought of Hughes, the following words from Steve Waugh of his efforts in England in 1993 are a fitting summary of both admiration and occasional exasperation. "He didn't use his brain at all because it was all heart and that cost him in the long run," Waugh told Keane in Merv: The Full Story. "It put an end to his career in my opinion. I think he thought that 'every Test I miss is one I can never play again' and we were on a huge winning roll and he wanted to be part of it."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig