“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,
George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905
US (Spanish-born) philosopher (1863 – 1952)
I wonder if Santayana had struggling Australian top order cricketers in mind when he first came up with this quote in 1905. This line does wrap quite nicely around the Phil Hughes narrative that is currently evolving; a career arc that has struggled to maintain the breakneck momentum witnessed at the start of his career in South Africa two years ago. His technical deficiencies were initially uncovered by the likes of Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff through the last Ashes series in England as he was exposed by short pitched bowling in at the body, eventually being dropped from the side before the 3rd test of that series. However Simon Katichs’ injury, and subsequent demotion from the side, towards the end of 2010 created an avenue for Hughes back into the squad; his recall was seen by many as a sign that the selectors still had the 23 year old New South Welshman playing a big part in the Australian side’s future. Repeat struggles against England, this time on home soil, led to the familiar cries for a different answer at the opening spot, and the critics were out in full force until he slightly solidified his position in the team with 122 (on a very flat pitch) in the 3rd test against Sri Lanka earlier this year. There was further evidence of his potential when he feasted on some wayward South African bowling in Johannesburg with a cavalier 88, but massive questions marks remain over his spot in the side; his double failure in the 1st test against New Zealand had an exclamation point added to it via the farcical nature of his dismissal in the second inning as he was dropped once then the very next ball, out, attempting exactly the same shot, even rats learn after a time that it is not wise to continually try to eat the electrified piece of cheese (poor analogy but you get what I mean).
Baseball scouts, when evaluating prospects, talk about high ceiling guys, or guys you can dream on. They might have gone to a game and witnessed a pitcher flash a 95mph fastball or seen a guy hit 450ft home runs; now these players may not be consistent but scouts recognise the skill set is there it just needs to be developed and time needs to be given for players to adjust as they move up through the different levels of competition. This is Phil Hughes in a nutshell; high ceiling guy, who could potentially put up massive numbers. He possesses an unbelievable eye and the speed in which he gets his hands through the ball when executing his security blanket shot, the cut, is almost Steve Waugh like. Statistically he boasts exceptional numbers, 17 first class centuries at the age of 23 cannot be achieved without inherent talent, he is the youngest player to score two centuries in a game at test level and the youngest to score a century in a Shield final; proving that mentally he is capable of competing in pressure situations and always willing to trust in his technique (which is also a weakness, more later)
These same high ceiling guys also have a floor and Hughes’s floor is low……. really low. Technically he is far from orthodox, his back foot (left) frequently steps towards the leg side; as he looks to give himself room to thrash the ball square through the offside. Steve Thomlinson, who coached Hughes when he was a part of the NSW schoolboy’s side in 2005, recognised even at an early stage that the young opener needed to work on his footwork in order for him to achieve at a higher level. Unfortunately this method of stepping away removes what is normally a left handers bread and butter shot; working a straight ball off the pads through the on- side. It also means his head is often far from the ball which causes unsatisfactory balance and balls played in the air. This leads me to write about the elephant in the room, the edges, and the frequency in which Hughes gets caught behind the wicket; 19 of his 29 dismissals in tests, including each of the past 6, have been caught between wicketkeeper and gully. Black Caps bowler Chris Martin has exposed the technical flaw perfectly and Hughes will get no respite when facing Ishant Sharma later in the summer as he pushes the ball across left handers and can get awkward bounce on Australian pitches. Now Hughes is not the first left hander to struggle with the ball angled across them but the time has come to address this imperfection when executing a test innings.
I hate nothing more than players, when going through a lean patch, uttering the phrase, “I’ll just keep playing my natural game,” if your natural game was working then you would be succeeding right? Sachin Tendulkar’s longevity in the sport has been due to the evolving nature of his technique and his ability to alter the method in which he goes about constructing an innings. Steve Waugh was another who at an even younger age evolved from a flashy, attack driven player into a batsman that rarely played the hook shot, as he was able to highlight areas of his game that could go by the wayside as he sought to make the most out of the abilities he was born with. Hughes must begin to do the same, bowlers know how to bowl to him, the proof is in the statistics, you cannot deny the hard evidence, great players adapt their games in order to combat the adjustments made by bowlers. Look at Hughes first two test hundreds in South Africa, Steyn, Kallis and Morkel were short but gave the opener a lot of width to work with. Fast forward to the Ashes in England and we see Flintoff and Harmison short, but at the body. It is all about learning from the past and applying those lessons to the present.
But what can be done with Hughes, personally I would love to see him stick in the side and make the adjustments. This will involve Mitchell Johnson like patience on the selectors behalf as attempting to overhaul your game at test level will be a struggle. I think he has shown that at Shield level he can dominate; it is this domination at the lower level that also leads me to think that time in the domestic competition helps to encourage Hughes’s attacking instincts. The preoccupation of bowlers at state level to be happy with short of a length bowling feeds right into the New South Welshman’s wheelhouse; inconsistent lines means that he will quite often get the ball outside off and is able to live off the cut all day long. At the higher level the quality of bowling will ensure he very rarely get the room to successfully execute the cut; instead clumsily attempting the shot with a delivery too close to the body. So it’s time for rehab for our opener, like methadone replaces heroin for a junkie, Hughes needs to find a method in which to kick the addiction, leaving the ball outside off is the cold turkey approach and is a tough way to go; it may ultimately be the only way to succeed in the near future. He needs to find another area to score in, particularly on the on-side. If Hughes can make the adjustments to his technique then he will fill another part of the puzzle that has begun to be completed by the surprise form of Nathan Lyon and inexperienced paceman. Phil Hughes in form is a beautiful sight and I hope that he is able to find a level of consistency required from a test opener and begins to be a force in international cricket.