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.

2013: It’s going to be a big year

Generally the new year brings with it a sense of renewal, the turning of the page so to speak as we look ahead to the year that is to come and try to identify some people for whom 2013 will be a big year for.

Chris Woakes

Having been on the cusp of full international honours for the past two years, it is probably overly pessimistic to describe 2013 as make or break for Woakes. But one gets the feeling that this could be the year for the Warwickshire fast bowler especially given the recent travails affecting Broad and Bresnan’s form which could open up a gap in the bowler-who can score runs market for England. While his bowling is undoubtedly potent at County level, there are still doubts about his pace – though his role model ought to be Vernon Philander – a bowler of similar pace who does enough with the ball to worry opposition.

MS Dhoni

2013 starts with Dhoni finding himself in a position he’s not probably used to: under a cloud. His own form in Test Cricket is patchy, his leadership of the side underfire as he oversees a team which is palpably in decline with it’s aging batting stars fading and a pace and spin attack which has suddenly losing it’s edge. 2013 ought to be a defining one in Indian cricket, and if Dhoni is to remain in charge he must oversee an overhaul in personnel – dealing with the loss of Tendulkar and Sehwag while continuing to promote the Rahane’s, the Kohli’s and perhaps even the Chand’s, while also finding the right balance of wicket-takers in attack. It’s a tough ask for a captain whose own form is under scrutiny, but if he can set about dealing with India’s problems and set them back on the right track this year then it could redefine Dhoni’s legacy as Indian captain.

Phil Hughes

On the face of it, Australian cricket is on the rise again. They’ve just come off a bumper year in terms of Test cricket results, bar the South Africa series where they did most of the running but fell short at the end, have unearthed a battery of potent quick bowlers and have a captain whose own form has practically gone supernova. Yet scratch beneath the surface, and there are real worrying signs in this team, particularly in the batting line-up which will now say goodbye to Mike Hussey. Their openers have enjoyed up and down results, with Cowan in particular needing to find a big score, at four they have Shane Watson whose injury problems make him the Darren Anderton of cricket and who, when fit, still struggles to convert 50’s to 100’s. At five you have the captain, on another level, and at six you have a question-mark – Khawaja or David Hussey. Hence why this year is a big one for Phil Hughes. Technical and temperamental question marks aside, out of all the top four batsman he boasts the best record of all of them in terms of runs scored in Test Cricket, and one thing you can say about Hughes is that he does, despite all the flaws, score runs. And Australia need him to do it now, it’s a double Ashes year for goodness sake, one in which England are the favourites. Upset the odds and Hughes could make himself a hero.

Angelo Mathews

Something ain’t right in Sri Lankan cricket, something is sucking the life out of it. Perhaps it’s administrators, those greedy men in suits who will skim off the top and refuse to schedule enough Test’s for Sri Lanka. Perhaps it’s the domestic competition, which isn’t developing enough Test ready cricketers, perhaps it’s T20 which skews priorities and hinders player development. Or perhaps it’s the players themselves, who have got on a roll of losing and don’t know how to bring it back. It’s a big question to ask, but Sri Lanka need to get something back into their cricket, some fun, some sparkle, some enjoyment. Hence why this is a big year for Angelo Mathews – because he’s the best person to do it and a likely captain long-term. With Jayawardene, Sangakarra and Dilshan all sidling towards the exit, Sri Lanka need a new hero to look up to, as captain and especially with the bat. The most likely man to do that is Mathews. He’s got the talent, plenty of it, but needs to convert it into a consistent run of scores and if he can do that then Sri Lanka’s batting troubles could be eased somewhat and the give the likes of Thirimanne and Chandimal, good prospects for the future, something to work with and learn from.

Kane Williamson

One of my hopes for 2013 is that New Zealand cricket learns to love itself again. All the cricketing neutrals, bar the Australian’s perhaps, would say that of all the teams that play the game New Zealand are the one’s they most want to do well. We know they’ll never be able to compete in terms of resources and players with the big Test nations, but the fact that they used to so consistently punch above their weight and cause some bloody noses along the way made them eminently likeable. Add in the fact that most of their cricketers came across as decent, down-to-earth guys who played the game the right way and you have a cricket team who are hard not to like. But recently there’s not been a lot of love in New Zealand, in fact there’s been a lot of hate. From the coach who can’t manage, to a cricket board which is falling out with it’s captain and best player, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more inept cricketing structure – an achievement given they share a sport with the BCCI. The shame is, if you look close enough, you can see some green shoots of recovery in amongst all the detritus. They have a pace bowling attack which, finally being led by Tim Southee, has lots of promise, and a batting line-up which, when it fires, can be explosive. It also has unearthed it’s brightest batting prospect, arguably since Stephen Fleming, in Kane Williamson. The boy scores runs, lots of them, and having had a progressive 2012 he’s now the key wicket in this batting line-up. 2013 ought to be the year that really launches him on to a bigger stage, hopefully as part of a Kiwi revival – something all us neutrals would really love to see.

Quinton de Kock

How do you improve the number 1 Test team in the world? Pretty straightforward question, to which there is no answer, yet. The best hope for South Africa in terms of improvement could come from the continued development of a batsman who, by all accounts, is the best young player in the world right now. He scored the fourth most runs at the U19 World Cup last year, averages 67 (!) in domestic cricket, played a couple of sterling knocks in the Champions League for Highveld Lions and has already been fast-tracked to the South Africa T20 set-up. To boot, he can also keep wicket and appears to have the right kind of temperament to eventually step up to Test Cricket sooner rather than later. Who knows, he may even fill that troublesome number six position one day, but 2013 promises to be a big year for a young man with the world, apparently, at his feet.

Sunil Narine

For Sunil Narine, a cricketing career which was progressing so smoothly right up until he hit test cricket has suddenly come to a shuddering halt. All of a sudden all the variations, the ability to bamboozle batsmen which are so potent in the shorter form of the game have suddenly unravelled, and his average of 48 (compared with an average closer to 20 in all other forms) becomes a real hindrance. The challenge for Narine is that, with most other “mystery spinners” once they are caught out in one form, generally it tends to unravel in the other forms and Ajantha Mendis – the great spin hope of Sri Lanka five years ago – is a cautionary tale for Narine to be aware. 2013 will be a big year for him because it will either be the year where he asserts himself in Test cricket and becomes a long-term Test regular for West Indies or he doesn’t and becomes a short-form only player whose abilities to keep an end tight and occasionally knock over a couple of batsmen when they look to attack will be crucial to West Indies. For West Indies and Test Cricket as a whole, you have to hope it’s the former, that he can crack it in the longest form and become a potent force. Because West Indies need wicket-takers, and Test Cricket needs entertainers – Narine could fulfil both criteria, 2013 will go a long way to tell us if he can.

Junaid Khan

Junaid Khan ended 2012 definitively on a high. Ripping the heart out of India’s top order for Pakistan is a big thing, for a young Pakistan pace bowler, given the history of fine pace bowlers who have done the same in the past, it’s arguably even bigger. Thus it was no surprise that the Wasim Akram comparisons were wheeled out afterwards, a left-arm quick taking wickets in Pakistan will always be tagged with the Akram comparisons, but the positive for Khan is that in performing as well as he is, he’s stopped people lamenting the loss of another Pakistan left-arm seamer, Mohammed Aamer. His impact on Pakistan’s performances have been mixed, especially compared with the more consistent output from the experienced spin duo of Ajmal and Rehman. But Pakistan are an ageingteam, one who will soon be reliant on their younger players to lead the way and Khan, as he has already shown is more than up to the task. 2013 should enable him to put an even bigger marker down, with Tests against South Africa, current Test number 1, and a Champions Trophy in which Pakistan ought to fancy themselves as contenders.

Ricky Ponting: Symbols, Cycles and the Old Ways

Great players often leave great holes behind them

As with anything regarding Australian cricket past and present, Gideon Haigh summed it up best. He once wrote: “Great players often leave great holes behind them; it is a very rare great player who effectively renders himself redundant”. Haigh was writing about Allan Border, but the sentiment could so easily be applied to one of Border’s successors Ricky Ponting, whose final day of test cricket leaves Australia facing a great hole to fill.

When cricketers become symbols of their age, their exit also becomes symbolic. Ponting’s exit is a symbolic moment in Australian cricket, not for what he was but what he represented. His cycle was a golden one, spanning 17 years of (mostly) unprecedented success, but also of turbulent change as cricket has straddled the demands of valuation and values as the rise of the shortest form has posed a challenge to its longest.

And in amongst the cacophony of hyperbole and exaggeration, Ponting was a voice of reason who often stood up for the game’s finest traditions despite being the captain of the world’s most commercially driven and powerful cricketing country.

He frequently spoke of his fondness for his old days of club cricket, retired from Twenty20 such was his disdain for the format and argued long and loud for the protection of Test cricket and Shield Cricket. He even devoted his Bradman oration to a recollection of his youth growing up playing cricket in Launceston and listening to the old pro’s at his cricket club Mowbray.

It’s hard not to feel his passing is significant. Australian cricket finds itself increasingly at the mercy of the game’s shortest form, with the rise of the Big Bash and the IPL enriching a generation of ordinary Australian cricketers, while it’s form in the longest form suffers. It is at a crossroads and Ponting’s traditional values may themselves soon become increasingly obsolete.

Indeed Ponting was very much in the mould of much of the Australian traditions. He was as competitive as they came, a prodigious talent who seldom took a backwards step against any opposition and who fielded with the enthusiastic energy of a greyhound. His aggression at times overspilled, but it underlined the fiercely competitive streak which made the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Allan Border and Steve Waugh real Australian heroes. If anything Ponting was a product of his upbringing.

Yet there are few like him left. Australian cricket needs heroes, people it can identify with, and while it’s technical purists have always attracted purrs of delight. Hard-nosed competitive bastards have always been popular down under, Australian cricket has lost that edge. If the recent examples of Mitchell Marsh and Luke Pomersbach tell us anything, it expects it’s players to be saints rather than sinners. Ponting could be both, but importantly, everyone knew he could easily be the latter if a win was at stake.

Australia will miss that. Ponting was a winner, regardless of the failings of the past three years, and a master batsman to boot. He was symbolic of the age he played in – a winning cricketer in an Australian team which was utterly devoted to it.

He was the golden son of a golden age, and with him passing closes a chapter in Australian cricket which will probably go down as it’s greatest. Ponting led his side to victories, delivered defining innings when it really mattered-too many to count-and at number three dominated opposition bowlers in a style unlike any Australian right hander.

While his place in the side became more and more based upon sentiment as his failures began to stack up, it was a sentiment borne of his standing in international cricket and the nagging fear that one day it would click and the old magic would return and be unleashed on an opposition again.

Nor was his place in the side completely without merit – his form in Shield Cricket where he topped the early run scorers chart – demanded his place in the side, but his failures this summer have merely reinforced the growing gap between the two and confirmed to Ponting that he could no longer continue kidding himself.

Perhaps now neither can Australia. Ponting’s place in the side was a last reminder of what Australia were until recently, a great and dominant side. His departure, and the manner of his decline, are symbolic of the reality of the situation facing them now. The sad reality is that Ponting’s place was as much on merit as reputation such is the dearth of options which Australia have.

Whereas the likes of Border and Waugh could retire safe in the knowledge that they were being pushed for someone else to come in, Ponting has tried to hang on until someone possible came along, only retiring once he no longer felt capable of carrying on.

More ups and downs than a soap opera

The options facing them are scarce. Usman Khawaja, Callum Ferguson and Phil Hughes sit atop the run scorer charts in Shield Cricket, but all experienced as many ups and downs as a soap opera character.

Mark Cosgrove remains an option, but a weighty one unconsidered by the selectors while the likes of Chris Rogers and David Hussey ought to deserve consideration on experience alone but won’t get it. As solutions go it hardly bodes well for the future.

So as Ponting moves into retirement, Australia must confront themselves with the reality of the situation which they have been able to hide from for too long. That great hole the great players leave behind could prove to be an especially great one for Ponting’s successor. Australia may be about to learn just how great the hole really is.

If Ponting’s career was symbolic of the successful Australian team he was part of, his exit in defeat could be equally symbolic of the Australia team which will follow his departure. Competitive, capable but ultimately bereft of the inspiration or never-say-day attitude which Ponting himself embodied more than anyone.