It seems just like yesterday (although it was several years ago) that I wandered down to the blessed SCG to see Phil Hughes play his first first class innings for NSW.
What I saw that day convinced me and still does, despite all the tribulations with the bat he has endured since then, that here was a superstar batsman in the making.
Hughes presented as a smallish (the build of most great batsmen), tough-minded player with an eccentric technique that virtually prevented him from scoring runs on the leg side. But his eye was as keen as an eagle’s.
He had a very quick bat speed. He hit the ball, especially behind point with tremendous power.
And he had great powers of concentration which he demonstrated by batting for a couple of hours on a difficult pitch against a strong Tasmanian attack led by Ben Hilfenhaus.
As his career developed he showed another characteristic that is the mark of potentially great batsmen, the ability to score 100s. In his short career, at the age of 24, he has already scored 20 centuries. No one of the same age currently in Australian cricket right now comes anywhere near close to this record.
And in general, he has scored these runs relatively quickly.
This is an important point. I’ve been critical of Ed Cowan in that he is a slow scorer who does not go on to make huge scores. The object of the batsmen in Test sides must be to score enough runs to leave their bowlers time to bowl out the opposition twice.
Slow scorers have to ensure they score so massively that a second batting innings of any great length isn’t necessary.
Alistair Cook does this. But Cowan, with one exception, hasn’t yet converted his starts in Tests hundreds that provide the impetus for victories.
I believe this is why Ian Chappell, a proponent of the ‘get-on-with-it’ way of batting, has opted for a David Warner-Shane Watson opening pair.
For the Hobart Test, I’d like to see an Australian batting order lining up in this way: Cowan, Hughes, Warner, Watson, Clarke and Hussey. Warner seems to me to be a natural number three, a sort of Neil Harvey dasher, who can take on the new ball if necessary or the spinners if there is a strong opening stand.
Interestingly, Cowan and Hughes have about the same Test batting average. Cowan averages 34.47 after 10 Tests: Hughes averages 34.58 after 17 Tests. I have the feeling though that Hughes can improve on his average and Cowan will struggle to get his much above what it currently stands at.
It is one of the fascinating stories of Test cricket that Hughes burst into that arena (with 75 on debut against South Africa at the Wanderers) with a couple of blazing centuries. After seven Tests, he was averaging 51.25. Tests against England exposed a terminal weakness to a lifting ball on the off stump line.
Last season when Hughes was brought back into the Test team for the third time, a lively New Zealand seam attack exposed this fatal weakness once again.
Hughes was written off by most of the experts and most of the readers of The Roar. But to his credit, he eschewed the big money in Twenty20 cricket (where he has an average of over 50!) and went away and with his first coach and mentor Neil D’Costa rebuilt his batting method.
With the new method he scored a pile of runs in England in all forms of cricket there. This season in Australia he has scored a huge number of runs in Shield cricket, as well as a stunning 74 off 48 balls for the Adelaide Strikers against the Perth Scorchers at the WACA Ground last Sunday.
I watched this innings closely to get a sense what changes Hughes and D’Costa had made to his batting style.
It seems to me that three minor but important adjustments have been made.
First, he has opened up his stance slightly. This adjustment has, in turn, opened up the leg side on his scoring chart. Where he hardly scored a run on the leg side with the old style, he now scores about 30 percent of his runs on the leg side.
Second, he moves across his stump as fast bowlers deliver the ball. This helps to get him behind the lifting deliveries and helps cut back on the knicks to the wicket-keeper and the slips, while allowing him to crash boundaries with his trade mark slash back of point.
Third, he gets his bat in the lift position with his hands quite close to his chest, a method recommended by Greg Chappell a long time ago and by experts who have analysed Sir Donald Bradman’s method of batting.
The early lift has allowed Hughes to pull the ball, a shot he never used to play but which he brought off at the WACA Ground to great effect.
Despite his former eccentric (to put it gently) method, Hughes scored 1072 runs in 17 Tests. At the same age, 24, after 17 Tests Allan Border had scored 1260 runs. But Steve Waugh after 17 Tests had scored 656 runs. And Ricky Ponting after 17 Tests had scored 1027 runs.
D’Costa reckons that Hughes has the ability and the time to score 10,000 Test runs, statistics that will make him a cricket great.
I’m with D’Costa on this. It would be a great thing for Australian cricket if this prediction is ultimately proven to be correct.