Sport

Cricket: Underdog Hughes to fill Ponting’s shoes

By Ant Sims 7 December 2012

They say the third time is a charm, and Phil Hughes will be hoping that’s the case. He’s been recalled to the Australian squad to play against Sri Lanka over the summer, and while his star waned when he last played for his country, the 24-year-old has come a long way. By ANT SIMS.

Remember Phil Hughes? The little opener from South Australia who had an impressive debut series against South Africa in 2009, but then started to fade? The youngster who almost always looks like he is about to burst into tears, especially when he is dismissed four times in four innings by the same bowler and the same fielder?

The same Hughes who looked so utterly clueless during two Ashes series that he never managed to pass 40… That’s the player who has been tasked with filling the void left by Ricky Ponting. While three other players were considered, Australian selectors reckon it’s Hughes who could be lucky. The batsman has been recalled to the Australian Test squad for their upcoming series against Sri Lanka – a drip feed back into the Test arena for a player who looked so utterly inept at times that many swore he would never get a chance to play cricket again. 

“Phillip Hughes has been selected to fill the vacancy created by Ricky Ponting’s retirement,” head selector John Inverarity said in a news release.

Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Rob Quiney and Alex Doolan were the four batsmen to come under consideration to bat high in the order.

This season, Hughes has scored 518 runs in Sheffield Shield cricket at an average of 51.80. He’s notched one a ton and three fifties, and the selectors feel that he’s the player who has showed the biggest improvement – that he could very well be the right man to fill the spot. 

“Phillip is an improved player and his recent and overall career statistics present a compelling case.

“The (selectors hold) the view that he, having just turned 24, is a very significant part of the future. He has received this call-up, his third, as it was considered to be the right time and circumstances for him to re-establish himself,” Inverarity explained.

Quiney’s dip into the Test cricket pool was brief. His baptism by fire saw him make nine in his first match and a pair in his second as he was forced to fill in for the injured Shane Watson against South Africa. 

Hughes, though, gets a much better deal. Selectors admitted that they wanted to ease the player back into the side and said they wanted to make sure he was 100% ready for his return to the big stage. 

“We did feel that throwing him into the Tests against the world number one with their attack was probably not the ideal set of circumstances for him, and we feel the time now is absolutely right for him. We needed to be convinced that his game was absolutely cherry ripe. It was just recently at the MCG that he got a big hundred [158 for SA v Victoria] and I think that was further proof that he’s in absolutely the right place,” Inverarity said.

“Rob Quiney is a wonderful man. I think he was very grateful for the opportunity, and who knows what’s round the corner. He’s not one to hold grudges or think he’s hard done by. I think he was very grateful for the opportunity and looks forward to the time when he might get an opportunity again.”

While Ed Cowan and David Warner are likely to retain their opening spots, Hughes might slot in at number three, and Shane Watson could move down the order and replace Ponting at four. 

While Shield cricket is perhaps not the perfect yardstick against which to measure international potential, Hughes has put in the hard yards to refine his technique. When was dropped from the Australian Test side last year, he opted out of the Big Bash and instead focused on improving his moves. Time out of the spotlight might be exactly what Hughes needed to put him right, and a seemingly easy series against Sri Lanka is his best chance to prove himself.

“If you watched him closely 12 months ago and now, his scoring range is very different,” Inverarity said. “He’s scoring through the leg side off his pads much better, driving on the on-side, and pulling short balls, which wasn’t the case 12 months ago. So I think he’s developed his game, and it is much harder for bowlers now in a sense to corner him.”

Batting isn’t really a concern for Australia, though. They have a wealth of talent in their batting line-up, but their bowlers, especially their young quicks, have been falling apart. James Pattinson picked up an injury against South Africa, while Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle were both “rested” for the final Test due to struggling with fitness issues. The latter pair have retained their place in the squad, though, like Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc.

Inverarity has faith that Hilfenhaus can make good, despite a few injury niggles.

“The history with Ben – he was doing well; then the last series against England in Australia [in 2010-11] he didn’t bowl to his highest level,” Inverarity said. “He got things sorted out, a few niggles were sorted out and he got his bowling action right, and his bowling last summer was superb. He bowled at good pace and very well.

“His bowling in the first Test was a bit like against England; it wasn’t as good as he’d hoped. So he needs to get 100% fit to perform, and his action so that he bowls like he did against India last summer, and we’re hopefully that during this little break he’ll be back to that sort of form.” 

The series against Sri Lanka starts on 14 December, and there will be one more mark of honour for retired Ponting, with his contribution to the game being marked by a lap of honour at Bellerive Oval in Hobart during the lunch break on day one of the first Test. DM

Photo: Australia’s Phil Hughes avoids a high ball during the second cricket test match against New Zealand, at Bellerive Oval in Hobart December 11, 2011. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

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