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.

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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.

Duncan Fletcher v Andy Flower: The clash of the summer

Not since the days of 2005 when Australia came to town has a visiting team been greeted by such a heightened sense of expectation and excitement since the arrival of this India team. While talk of this series defining who quite rules the cricketing landscape is perhaps justified (though South Africa may have something to say about that), it is the personnel clashes on both sides which make this clash such an appealing one.

The contests simply jump off the pages. The captains-conservative Strauss vs aggressive Dhoni, the flashing blade of Sehwag vs the efficient, less effervescent Cook, Swann vs Harbhajan, Tendulkar vs Pietersen and Anderson against Zaheer are just some of the clashes that run throughout both sides from 1 to 11. Yet the deciding clash of the summer could well be the one taking place off the field, that of Andy Flower against his predecessor Duncan Fletcher.

Comparisons between the two are obvious, both are Zimbabwean, both excelled as players (Flower more so), both are serious-minded, organised individuals who combine the technobabble of a business management mastermind with the cricketing nous of someone who has spent years learning and absorbing every nugget of information about their sport. If they are both seldom heard in public (not a bad thing in a coach), then when they do speak they mostly speak with great clarity and perception which provide a welcome contrast to the tired soundbites of most modern coaches. Not to mention both inspire great loyalty from their players, perhaps a key quality in any coach, as England players to this day count Fletcher as a friend as well as a mentor while also displaying a similar sense of respect for Flower.

Yet in some ways the comparisons can perhaps be overegged, for though they share much in common, the differences in styles remains marked. Fletcher for one in his time as England coach was against County Cricket and its demands on his players whereas Flower has positively embraced it as a means of developing players. Gone too is the protective bubble which surrounded England players under Fletcher protecting them from criticisms and potential damaging outside influences, instead replaced by a more open-minded, embracing and positive outlook from Flower who urges them to take criticism head on, take responsibility and approach every challenge as an experience to be enjoyed.

Meanwhile Fletcher’s technical analysis is perhaps more incisive and doubtless he will be aware of the varying weaknesses which exist in this England side which could give him an edge. Whereas by comparison the structure and organisation which Flower has built up in his three years as England coach provide them with a strong framework which has yet to fall down despite numerous challenges across the world. Though for that he must surely thank Fletcher who during his time as England coach putting the starting blocks in place.

They are two of cricket’s finest coaches, two men whose strengths far outweigh their weaknesses, and who share much in common but also whose differences mark them out as very much their own men. For all the qualities on show from both the English and Indian teams this summer, it could be the qualities of two Zimbabweans which could hold the key.

England: Eoin Morgan foils the Selectors

One wondered whether in the midst of their gargantuan partnership for England Lions against Sri Lanka whether Samit Patel was tempted to turn to Eoin Morgan and utter as Graham Gooch once did to Ian Botham, “who writes your scripts?” Because this was certainly one of those moments of which star turns are made, despite the relatively humble surroundings in which it came.

Eoin Morgan flown back from the IPL last week where he was shunted around, failed to score runs, without little more than practice against net bowling to get him into the groove for first class cricket was being thrown in at the deep end for what was effectively a straight shootout for a Test spot against a man who has made all the right noises, done all the right things and scored all the right runs.

Yet despite all those odds, those questionmarks, once he got out into the middle they all quickly melted away. His form was good, his eye importantly was good. That aura and authority which has been eroded after more than six months kicking his heels on tour with England was back. Suddenly you remembered quite why he was the likely candidate for the Test team as he dominated spin and seam with that touch of class and steely glint in his eye which is now his trademark.

If this were a straight shoot-out then Morgan would be winning it. Perhaps not considerably, but certainly on points after Ravi Bopara lucked out and left for a low score. Yet the fact remains, that this was never a straight shootout. It was never going to be Morgan vs Bopara, or Bopara vs Hildreth vs Morgan vs Taylor because the selectors have made their bed, and Bopara is going to lie in it.

They were probably hoping, deep down that Morgan would fail here. It would make it all the more easier to pick Bopara over him on the basis of batting form. Yet now that’s gone, and if Bopara is picked and fails against opposition he has struggled in against Test cricket before, then the clamour for Morgan will intensify even further especially after an innings like this.

England selectors may have hoped for things to become that little bit clearer after their Derby trip, yet Morgan has simply muddied the waters even further.

India’s World Cup 2011: Living Up To The Legacy

It was fitting that it was India’s captain who was the man who scored the winning runs in the World Cup final to bring his country their second victory in the tournament some 28 years after their previous victory.

Much has changed in those 28 years since an Indian team unfancied from the start but ultimately inspired to victory by Kapil Dev via victories over England and India. In those years great players have emerged almost en masse, inspired by the exploits of those trailbrazers.

Many billions of rupees have been invested, Indian cricket has changed and has taken cricket as a whole with it.Dhoni is very much symbolic of the modern day Indian team.

You can seldom appreciate just how large a sportsman he is with endorsements coming out of his ears, a million dollar IPL contract and the adoration of countless Indian fans.He is also blockbuster, in a country renowned for it’s Bollywood stars, Dhoni has that x-factor which makes him unique.

He plays cricket with a bang and precious little regrets and as he showed on Saturday a thirst for the big occasion. Yet as Dhoni himself acknowledged after their latest triumph, they owed it all to their predecessors who had helped establish a legacy for India to live up to.

He said: “People started loving the sport and you then saw two individuals making their debut, Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar.”

“This was the chain of players because of whom we are in this position right now. We earn a lot of money, we get a lot respect and what we are trying to do is to pass it onto the next generation.”

It was an important point to make and reflected something which cuts right to the core of everything to do with India’s triumph: their love of cricket.India are fanatical about it, but their also fanatical about their plays achieving success through it.

The triumph in 1983 helped show Indian fans that they could succeed in this format and helped build a lasting love affair with it.Then the next generation of players came along, a generation who not only played good attacking cricket but also were remarkable cricketers in the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble.

After them came the likes of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, then Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan-many of whom were still very much involved in their latest success and they have helped lead the way.

Whereas India’s success in 1983 was very much unexpected, the generation which followed brought even greater success as the likes of Tendulkar, Kumble and Ganguly helped shatter many of the preconceptions of Indian cricket and pave the way for it’s modernisation to the big beast it is today.

Then came the next group, the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina and Dhoni himself. All played cricket with a sense of adventure and irresponsibility which reflected this liberation, yet which would be their greatest strength and also their greatest weakness at times.

This lust for adventure was encouraged by the advent of T20 or more importantly the Indian triumph of 2007 which helped launch the IPL and helped make Indian the centre of cricket’s universe.

It was on this path that the seeds of their latest triumph were sowed as the legacy of Indian cricket helped them become what they are today: World Champions.Yet with their new found status it was noticable that Dhoni insisted that India must encourage their next generation to follow in their footsteps and continue this legacy.

The likes of Tendulkar and Sehwag will surely follow Ganguly and Kumble into retirement thus it will be up to the younger members like Ashwin and Kohli to continue to seek to maintain standards and ensure that India do not fall back into bad habits and squander what they have achieved.

For this was a success which was 28 years in the making: a victory which was built on the achievements of the good and the greats of Indian cricket and the legacy which they have left. This was a moment which belonged not only to Dhoni and the men who made up his squad but all those who helped make India the cricketing nation it is today.

Pakistan v India: Brave New World Meets End of an Era

What more can you say about a match which will be watched by hundreds of millions of people. A match so big that even the President of the ICC expects it to shatter all records for viewing figures for any cricket match ever. It is the kind of cricket match which would have Don King salivating.

After all this is Pakistan versus India. A match where, in a land renowned for worshiping it’s deities, the cricketing versions are masters of their own universe.

Take the politics out of it, the strong emotional ties, the history and everything which people will attempt to signify with it and it still remains a powerful entity itself because these are two countries where cricket means something entirely different to anywhere else in the world.

But while these two nations have a lot in common, they also are very much apart and in someways the differences could not be more marked. India have the batsmen to win this match and it is Pakistan who have the bowlers bar the honorable exception of the evergreen Zaheer Khan.

It is India who are the more consistent, Pakistan perhaps the more exciting. Even the two best players in the tournament, Shahid Afridi and Yuvraj Singh-both spinning all-rounders of differing varieties-will be up against one another.

While one team considers themselves to be the beating heart of all that drives international cricket, the other is still trying to redeem itself for it’s past transgressions.

For India this match is crucial. They are reaching the end of a cycle which has seen them boast some of the finest players, playing some of the finest cricket that the world has ever seen.

Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan cannot carry on forever and will surely never have a better chance to lift the trophy before finally following the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble into retirement thus bringing to an end a fine company of cricketers who have helped make India what they are today.

While fine players such as Yuvraj, Dhoni and Gambhir will help ease the burden of their eventual passing, it is hard to escape the sense that Indian cricket will take time to rebuild itself after these players, and in particular two of the greatest of all time in Tendulkar and Sehwag, move on.

Meanwhile for Pakistan, the scene is very different. This is a country which has been through more upheaval in the past year than other test nations have in the past two decades.Suspensions, ball tampering, match-fixing, the works. Throw in murder and racketeering and you have a rap sheet you’d expect a Baltimore police officer to be reading straight off The Wire.

Yet remarkably, perhaps even astonishingly, there are green shots emerging from what had seemed only last summer to be a desolate landscape.Granted, the likes of Mohammad Asif and Mohammed Aamir are missed, as is Salman Butt though less so perhaps. But in their place has come experienced heads like Misbah Ul-Haq, Younus Khan, Shoaib Akhtar and Abdul Razzaq to help ease the burden.

Meanwhile the Pakistan production line continues to produce gems not only polished enough to shine at international level but to genuinely sparkle. Few young batsmen catch the eye quite like Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad, or play with the maturity of Asad Shafiq.

Although their impact is not quite Inzamam Ul-Haq circa 1992, the potential long-term effect could still be as important in the years ahead. Add in the developing Wahab Riaz and you have a mixture of old heads and young colts who are gelling in a potent force.

Then to top it off you need leadership. A few months ago few people if any would have pictured Afridi and Umar Gul being the equivalents of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram but now they stand on the brink of emulating the ‘cornered tigers’. It would be a truly remarkable turnaround, and an excellent launchpad to put Pakistan cricket back into a far better place after years of struggle.

But these are just the back stories to what should be a truly major event in cricket’s history. Matches between these two rarely fail to disappoint, and with the calibre of cricketers on show it is certainly going to be anything but entertaining.

Because come tomorrow the eyes of the world will be focussed on a battle between two old rivals, fighting it out for one prize but with two very different outcomes still very much a possibility. Who will win is anyone’s guess, even for an audience of nearly a billion people.