Phil Hughes: Hope, Hype and the Slow Death

By any stretch of the imagination, Australia’s tour of India has been bad. A constant diet of bad batting, bad bowling, bad decisions and perhaps worst of all, bad luck. The latest case was Phil Hughes’ dismissal on the final day – an untypically poor decision from Aleem Dar to a ball which, according to the replay, was going down the legside. When things go against you, they really do go against you.

For a man whose previous five scores had been four single figures and a scratchy 19, this was some respite, but he remains a man under seemingly endless pressure and playing like it as well. In an underperforming team, Hughes’ failings have been highlighted mercilessly despite the travails of his other more established colleagues (Clarke apart).

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for him. Just four years ago, Hughes was not so much setting the Test Cricket scene alight as erupting like a firework upon it, becoming the youngest batsmen ever to score two centuries in a Test match against a rampant South African attack containing Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in only your second appearance will do that.

Just then, when the world was at his feet, the words of Neil D’Costa, Hughes’ mentor, who said “I’ll tell you this; this kid will go all the way”, appeared prescient. An Australian team, lacking a quality young batsman since Michael Clarke burst on to the scene, appeared to have found their era’s Don Bradman, Doug Walters or even Victor Trumper, young Australian’s who achieved extraordinary things.

Unfortunately for Hughes and Australia, history will record something very different. England refused to buy the hype and bounced him out of Test Cricket and put a severe dent in his reputation, and bar the occasional cameo there has been nothing quite to match the giddy heights of his debut. Not so much a Bradman, Walters or Trumper, he appears to be akin to David Hookes – a prolific run-scorer in domestic competitions but one who himself admitted that he struggled technically to cope with the rigorous demands of Test cricket.

But while Hughes’ travails in international cricket remain unrelenting, the question is rather whether Australian cricket can really afford to give up on him.

Domestically Hughes, with the second highest average in Sheffield Shield cricket (behind one Ricky Ponting), has had a prolific season. Bar old heads Ponting and perennial run-scorer Chris Rogers, only Mark Cosgrove and Alex Doolan as potential competitors in first class cricket have performed as well – one unselectable for spurious reasons, the other as yet inexperienced. Nor has his probable replacement, Usman Khawaja, performed as capably. If first class cricket, so often the previous indicator of Test readiness in Australia, is anything to go by then Hughes should by any definition be up for selection.

He almost seems symbolic, symbolic of a system which is failing in its duty to prepare Australia’s players adequately for Test Cricket through an insufficiently demanding domestic competition. Symbolic of a system which glorifies it’s young players too quickly without providing them with time to develop (remember Khawaja-mania?) and a cricketing setup which appears to look unkindly on its players operating their own form of preparation – hence D’Costa’s stinging rebuke against Cricket Australia’s refusal to permit him a one-on-one session with his young protégé.

The truth is that Hughes is what he is, a capable young player who at the age of 24 has the potential to iron out the technical flaws that are holding his game back. He is younger than Mark Waugh, Darren Lehmann and Mike Hussey were when they had scored their third Test Century yet still remains apparently on the cusp of being drummed out of Test cricket for the third time in his young career.

He appears to be a victim of his own success, a prisoner of the heightened expectations which greeted his initial triumphs in Test cricket and the reputation it brought with it. While Waugh, Lehmann and Hussey honed their game in first class cricket, Hughes has been promoted and talked up in international cricket – finding himself having to learn in an environment that is as unforgiving as they come. Little surprise he always bears the look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

And if Hughes does ultimately fail, Australia have some hard questions to ask themselves. A young player of almost prodigious talent is finding his career strangled by the weight of expectation placed upon him and the realisation that he is not the player he was heralded to be. It has been this reputation which has built his international career, but it could also be the burden which breaks it too.

Joe Root call shows England have learned from Australia and India

One of sport’s great modern perfectionists, Roy Keane, summed up one of the key parts of his approach to footballing success, when he said: “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”

Keane should know a thing or two about sporting success, and also the importance of making big decisions at the right time to benefit the continuation of success. He worked for Sir Alex Ferguson for over a decade, a man who has built three great teams at Manchester United, and who knew when to cut his losses and make the key calls, which once included getting rid of Keane himself when the time was right.

Preparation is a key part of Andy Flower’s philosophy, he ensures his team play as many warm up games per series than Sri Lanka play Tests annually. He also likes his side to be well drilled, organised, and meticulously prepared for whatever awaits them on the field. No doubt he’d fully endorse Keane’s philosophy, as it was the things which England failed to prepare for – a captain’s form failing, your star man texting the opposition and spinners, damn mystery spinners – that have derailed his team.

What he would also recognise is that two of his side’s biggest wins to date, in Australia in 2010 and now in India, came against side’s who ignored Keane’s mantra and found themselves caught in transition and unprepared to cope with what awaited them.

Australia in 2010 were a shadow of the team which had previously crushed English spirits at will. A group of ageing players such as Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey were required to keep a group of young, inexperienced players and others who were plainly erratic or incapable together in the face of a well drilled unit executing their skills expertly. The sight of Australia throwing in Michael Beer, Usman Khawaja and Xavier Doherty was a joyous one for an Englishman but painful for an Australian. Whereas once Australia prepared a young prospect for Test cricket with baby steps, such was the mismanagement of the departure of their great players one-by-one that they were forced by necessity to push inexperienced players too-far, too-fast. It was a shock they even won a match.

Now India in 2012 have fallen into the same trap. India are a team who have fallen on hard times from their peak of 2010 when they topped the world rankings. Their team are aging, their side disillusioned and their best players are past their peak. The sight of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan being wheeled out in a hope they could reignite their dying light was at the same time, both painful and awkward. Their futures are the elephant in India’s room.

The transition has again, scarcely been managed. India have two gaps in their middle order following the departures of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, taken by Pujara and Kohli – both of whom who were among the more successful batsmen in this series. But beyond those two, the replacements for Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag will lack experience of Test cricket, while the replacement for Zaheer Khan is still waiting to be found and the mid-series selection of Harbhajan Singh was hardly a ringing endorsement for the young spinners coming through, though if that group is headed by Ravinder Jadeja it’s hardly surprising.

If England’s two successes tell Flower anything beyond the strength of his own team, it’s also that if he wants to ensure their continuing success, then they must manage these scenarios better than those two countries.

This is a lesson which seems to resonate with him. While England’s success under Flower has been built on a cycle of players capable of adapting well to most conditions, he will be well aware that cycles will eventually end, and while the generation of Pietersen, Cook, Trott, Bell, Anderson and Swann are currently in the middle of a cycle of success which has carried them to the top of the world. But in time, and perhaps not too distant a time, this cycle will end and replacements will be needed. Hence why it was noticeable that Flower took time out in a post-series interview to praise the work of the English academy in preparing young players to be ready for international cricket. He also ought to praise the work of his predecessor, Peter Moores, who was integral in setting up the academy, because the work he has put in is reaping rewards.

English cricket has seldom produced as many multi-talented young players, but Flower has shown a keenness to expose them to international cricket which will ultimately be to England’s benefit. Joe Root’s successful debut at number six is the latest in a line of young English batsmen to be exposed to Test cricket. Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor have also performed noticeably well in difficult circumstances in Test cricket – which should boost their development further and prepare them when they permanently need to make the step up. Developing these players, and even younger, yet equally promising, players like Shiv Thakor, Daniel Bell-Drummond and Sam Billings will be high on the agenda for the next two years.

Furthermore the oft-stated intention of Flower to build a pace bowling squad which should enable England to rotate, will be used to prepare the next generation. The likes of Chris Woakes, Stuart Meaker and James Harris have all been integrated tightly with the squad and drip-fed international cricket, and all ought to be considered for the New Zealand tour. While the spin bowling cupboard is slightly barer, Flower has already exposed Scott Borthwick and Danny Briggs to international cricket and Simon Kerrigan has been part of the Performance Programme for the past two winters.

While these may seem like small steps right now, they are all intrinsic parts of Flower’s long-term plan for England, and his plan to expose as many of these younger players to international cricket as early as possible to aid their development. If England’s recent successes have taught him anything, preparing for the future is as important as preparing for the present, as both Australia and India can testify as they underwent their own, tricky, transition.

Ian Bell: The new Daryll Cullinan

In 1935, sports writer Grantland Rice famously coined Gene Sarazen’s albatross on the 15th hole on his way to winning the Masters as “the shot that was heard around the world”. In 2012 against India at Ahmedabad, walking out with his team 69-4, Ian Bell played a shot that was also probably heard around the world – as much because it’s sheer ineptitude caused 10 million England fans to cry out in anguish at the same time.

Andy Bull on the Guardian’s OBO commentary probably described it best: “I cannot believe this. I mean really, really, that may be the single most idiotic, pathetic, embarrassing, humiliating, disgraceful, desultory, excruciatingly awful dismissal I have seen from an English batsman in five years of writing over-by-over cricket coverage.”

I actually feel some degree of sympathy of Bell, his dismissal was that of a man who knows he has a problem and is trying to overcompensate for it by doing something out of his comfort zone in an attempt to display a sense of authority and control, Also, having spent last Winter trying and failing to establish some credentials against the spin of Ajmal, Rehman and Herath, firstly by getting on the front foot and attacking selectively and secondly through staying on the back foot and defending, what other option did he have left?

His dismissal was that of a man whose ordinary gameplan is frazzled, as is his brain. He thought to be aggressive, overly so, dancing down the pitch and trying to hit over the top has long been his release shot against the spinners, but this was too much – a disaster of his own making. It was the shot of a desperate man, and desperate men don’t generally do well as Test batsmen.

His travails against high class spin have now reached a point, arguably where you wonder whether he can ever get it right. His early problems picking Shane Warne become famous, and much-talked about, but then having established a reputation as an attacking player of ”orthodox’ spin or Bangladeshi one’s, came the trauma of last Winter. He has the game, but you can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever get it right against spinners who he can’t pick.

These problems against spin are now so pronounced that they look eerily similar to those of another high class batsman who struggled against a high class spinner – Daryll Cullinan. Cullinan has almost become the prime example of a player who cannot cope, ‘a bunny’ as he was famously called against Shane Warne.

Cullinan, like Bell, was a stylish batsman who was capable of thriving against spin or seam, averaging 44 across his Test career, yet whose famous struggles against Shane Warne became so bad that they dogged him for his entire career – as he was technically equipped to cope but psychologically continually caught in the trap Warne laid for him, no matter what he tried. He admitted, after he retired: “Warne was too good for me. I, only caught on towards the end that I did not do the simplest of things well – and that is watch the ball out the hand. But by then it was too late.”

From one bunny to another the message is do the simple things well before it is too late, and its a message that Ian Bell should remember the next time he takes his guard against a spinner he can’t pick because after today he cannot afford a repeat. Because if he can’t change this record or his own gameplan, his career could well end up looking like this generation’s “bunny”, the English Cullinan. A successful one in some respects, but one where the nature of it’s failure threatens to overshadow it all.