Hughes revives an endangered art

Brett McKay Columnist

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Australian batsman Phillip Hughes leaves the ground frustrated after being bowled on 86 by Chanaka Welegedara on day 1 of the first cricket test match between Australia and Sri Lanka at Blundstone Arena in Hobart, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AAP Image/Chris Crerar)

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You just have to love writing about cricket and cricketers. On Wednesday, a day after I questioned whether he’s really playing that delivery angled across him any differently to how he was last summer, Phil Hughes compiled a beautiful century in the last match of the limited-over series against Sri Lanka.

Batting at first drop in Hobart, Hughes didn’t look particularly good until he was north of 60, but really kicked on after that, and indeed, produced some late-innings carnage to push Australia’s total from 5/218 at the end of the 47th over, to their eventual 5/247.

Hughes’ own innings could neatly be broken up into three blocks. His first fifty was raised in 82 balls, the second fifty came at a neat run-a-ball as the confidence started coming back, and the last unbeaten 38 from just 22 deliveries.

As far as one-day innings go, Hughes’ 138* was certainly the highlight of this five-match series, and might even be as well-compiled an Australian one-day innings in the last twelve months or so.

Such a well-constructed innings was timely, too, on a number of fronts.

Not just for the obvious reasons in the context of the game, but rather that with the rapid infiltration of Twenty20 cricket, it’s not that often that we get to see the lost art of ‘building an innings’ against the white ball.

And when it does happen, it invariably wins matches, as Hughes’ knock did.

For those willing to see the 50-over format disappear, this is probably worth considering. Sure, you’ll still get the big innings in the shortest form, and nearly all of them will be match-winning, but how many of them will really be constructed, rather than just… well, bashed?

The other timely aspect of Hughes’ hundred was that I’d only just read an interesting article in a book that discussed the beauty of the being able to build an innings in one-day internationals the night before.

No, it wasn’t a Christmas present, but rather a two-year old book of Gideon Haigh’s comprising articles he’d written in the two years before that.

I hadn’t even bought it deliberately; it was one of those you-might-also-like six-dollar beauties thrown up as you wander through the Amazon checkout.

Haigh’s book, Sphere of Influence, is a collection of articles from numerous publications and media outlets, mainly concerned with the growing empire of Indian cricket and the IPL, and how its/their power is seemingly expanding exponentially. There hasn’t been much disagreement so far.

One particular article, “How to save one-day internationals”, first published by our dear colleague, the late Vinay Verma, in the Seriously Cricket Chronicles in October 2009, made reference to a one-day century made that year by South African captain, Graeme Smith.

Haigh described it as being “as complete an innings as no Twenty20 innings ever will be.”

Now it’s true, Haigh is often less than complimentary about the Twenty20 game, though I believe his distaste is not necessarily toward the format itself, but rather the over-commercialisation of the format, and what effect that over-commercialisation is having on the broader cricket schedule. Not to mention the effect on the cricketers themselves.

Regardless of the motivation behind the obviously pointed remark, Haigh’s point stands. And Hughes’ innings in Hobart should be similarly celebrated, rather than left to fall deep into the abyss that contains every other decent one-day performance before it.

It’s an innings that shouldn’t be forgotten so hurriedly, even though it almost certainly will be.

Cricket Australia could do a lot worse than to put Hughes’ innings onto DVD and send it to every junior coach in the country. This innings, kids, is what you should be looking to emulate when you need to bat for any length of time.

There will be times when you’re coming off a couple of low scores in a row, and when the questions resurface as to whether you’re really as good a bat as was being made out. It won’t matter that you made a significant score four innings beforehand, scores of 3, 3, and 1 will get the tongues wagging again.

There will be times when you start off looking very shaky, maybe even on the verge of giving the critics even more ammunition. But somehow, you’ll get through that early period. You might manage a few good shots, but largely, you’ll be looking streaky for a good while.

Eventually, suddenly even, you’ll find yourself reaching fifty. You won’t have looked particularly good but you’re still eking out runs, almost in spite of yourself. However, this will also be a major mental hurdle you’ve overcome.

Push this scratchy fifty a bit further, and you’ll feel the confidence starting to build. The shots will come more freely; the feet will move faster and more decisively, and the ball will start finding the middle of the bat more often.

You’ll find yourself in the middle of a major partnership, and naturally, you’ll start projecting ahead, thinking of what kind of total you might be heading the team towards.

The the runs will really start flowing, you can do no wrong, and luck starts coming your way. Your century will arrive, you’ll raise the bat, and then you’ll have a bit of fun at the end with wickets in hand and nothing left to lose.

And you’ll walk off unbeaten, and look down to realise you’re wearing coloured gear.

This is building an innings, kids, and its place in one-day cricket should never be forgotten.

This is what I imagine Hughes went through on Wednesday afternoon. To be honest, this is what Hughes seems to go through whenever he makes a solid score. Ignore the colour of the gear and the ball, and this was just another Phillip Hughes innings.

An innings like this makes you realise why Hughes’ record is as good as it is in all three forms of the game. He has that wonderful ability when he’s ‘on’ to ignore the surroundings, and even his most recent form, and just go out there and bat.

With Michael Hussey now consigned to the ‘former’ prefix, Hughes is arguably the best innings builder behind Michael Clarke in the Australian team. It’s an art form that the proliferation of Twenty20 cannot teach, and which will be lost forever if the 50-over game is allowed to die.

Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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