Phillip Hughes has confirmed his axing from the Australian XI for Edgbaston via a posting on the social networking site, Twitter. After a string of modest totals prompted by a susceptibility to short-pitched bowling, Hughes was dropped for Shane Watson in the most surprising selection move of the Ashes series to date.
"Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today," Hughes posted several hours before the Australian team announcement. "Will be supporting the guys, it's a BIG test match 4 us. Thanks 4 all the support!"
Hughes managed 36, 4 and 17 at Sophia Gardens and Lord's, and posted scratchy innings of 10 and 68 in the most recent tour match against Northamptonshire. He had been expected to retain his place in the Australian starting XI on the back of his sublime debut series in South Africa, during which he posted centuries in both innings of the Durban Test, but fundamental flaws in his technique have prompted the selectors to act.
It is understood Watson will open the Australian innings in what represents a substantial gamble for the tourists. Despite impressive innings of 84 and 50 against Northants, Watson posseses a modest Test average (19.76) and has never batted higher than No. 6 in the five-day game. He has posted single-digit totals in his last four Test innings.
Watson has experienced moderate success batting higher in the order for Queensland, but has fared better opening the batting for the Australian one-day side. He has posted ODI centuries at the top of the order for Australia in the past year, having worked with Greg Chappell, the Australian centre of excellence coach, to tighten his technique.
Still, the move to replace Hughes with Watson comes as a shock on the eve of the third Test. Hughes, 20, arrived in England amid much fanfare following his prolific tour of South Africa (415 runs at 69.16) and a similarly successful stint with Middlesex (574 runs at 143.50). Hughes achieved the latter feat in just five innings, including three centuries, bettering Don Bradman's impressive start to his maiden first-class stint in England - 566 runs in five innings in 1930.
Any move to install Watson as Australia's new opener would also come as a surprise, given the quality of top-order candidates around the country. Chris Rogers, who played a solitary Test against India two years ago, has scored 408 runs at 45.33 for Derbyshire in 2009, following on from his successful debut season with Victoria. And Phil Jaques, who has reportedly recovered from a second round of back surgery, scored a century in his last Test innings and averages a robust 47.47 in 11 Test innings.
Evidence of the selectors' stunning move was on display at Australia's final pre-match training session at Edgbaston's indoor nets centre on Wednesday. Watson batted with tremendous intent during an extended net session with Tim Nielsen, the Australian coach. Several pundits had speculated the all-rounder could slot in for Marcus North at No. 6, but he will now be posted higher up the order as Australia seek to level the Ashes series.
"In the end, all I can do is perform and see what the selectors are going to do with the team," Watson said during the tour match at Northampton. "I'm not targeting one specific spot. I've just got to go out there and perform when I get the opportunity and see what happens.
"I feel like I've got the game and the technique and the mental side of things in the order to be able to give myself the best chance to combat [England's fast bowlers]. They're some of the best bowlers in the world and it's one of the biggest challenges you could really face in world cricket facing those guys with a brand-new ball on a fresh pitch. But I feel like I've got the game to handle that and it would be an awesome to challenge to have that opportunity."
England will undoubtedly view the move as vindication for their tight, short-pitched tactics to Hughes. South Africa also attempted to bounce the diminutive opener earlier this year, but offered him too much width and paid a heavy price.
Speaking to FoxSports prior to his axing, Hughes said he was enjoying the challenge of batting against Andrew Flintoff, who had dismissed him in two of his three innings on tour. "I see it as a challenge and it definitely has been, he's bowling beautifully, I suppose their whole unit has been coming out pretty well and you've got to really adapt to that," he said.
"I'm not going to change things right now, halfway through a series and I won't. There's things that I will be adapting to, a couple of things I want to change. I'm a little bit disappointed about not playing well in the first Tests but I can turn things around."
It is understood Australia will retain the same bowling attack from the opening two Tests of the series, albeit with Mitchell Johnson bowling at first-change, and Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus taking the new ball. The move will come as a desperate disappointment to Stuart Clark, who has performed strongly in all three tour matches and was hoping to force his way into the Australian XI for Edgbaston.
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Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo