SYDNEY // Perfect timing is an essential commodity in cricket and the emergence of batsman Phillip Hughes could not have come at a better time for the Australians. The 20-year-old has taken the cricketing world by storm since making his Test debut in February and is suddenly lurking as one of Australia's trump cards in this year's Ashes series.
With Justin Langer and then Matthew Hayden both retiring since the last Ashes series, Australia were desperate to find a new opener to partner Simon Katich and could not have imagined getting a better replacement than Hughes. Like his predecessors, Hughes is a pugnacious left-hander brimming with self-confidence and possessing an enormous appetite for runs. That is to be expected from any Australian Test batsman but what sets Hughes apart is his unorthodox batting style.
At first impression, he looks uncomfortable at the crease, stepping away from short-pitched deliveries and slashing the ball over backward point. He employs little traditional footwork, relying instead on his eye, but his unconventional approach should not be mistaken for poor technique, an error opposition bowlers have often made. No one has been able to work him out yet. Hughes has scored a mountain of runs at every level he has played and has even earned comparisons with Don Bradman, the greatest batsman of all time.
"With Bradman, it's definitely been flattering to hear that," Hughes said. "The rise to the top level has been very fast, obviously, for me. I'm 20 years of age and it's all happened like a bang." Like many Australian cricketers, Hughes was raised in rural New South Wales, a place with limited opportunities, but is one that has produced a long line of tough, single-minded players, including Bradman, Doug Walters and Glenn McGrath.
Hughes grew up on a banana plantation in Macksville, a town of 3,000 residents and honed his skills through hours of monotonous practice. By the age of 12, he had run out of junior players to challenge him so he was forced to play against adults, who gave him his first real test of courage with a barrage of bouncers. In 2006, when he was 17, he left Macksville for Sydney to start training at the cricketing school that produced Michael Clarke.
He made his first-class debut for New South Wales at 18 and finished the season by becoming the youngest player to score a century in the final of Australia's domestic Sheffield Shield competition. It was not just his timing at the crease that was perfect. A vacancy had suddenly opened up in the Australian team after Hayden retired in January and Hughes won a place in the Test side for the tour of South Africa.
He was dismissed for a fourth-ball duck after an ugly swipe in his first Test innings, but he quickly rebounded and showed he was made of sterner stuff. He made an assured 75 in the second innings then scored hundreds in each innings of his second Test, becoming the youngest man to achieve the feat. Hughes, a short man for an opener, has already made a big impression on in England after spending a month playing at Middlesex.
The county were almost accused of treason after giving Australia's youngest and most inexperienced batsman the chance to acclimatise to English conditions before the Ashes, an opportunity he clearly relished. In three first-class matches, he scored 574 runs, including three centuries on grounds that will be used during the Ashes, at an average of 143.50. The last Australian player to come close to scoring as many runs from their first innings in England was Bradman, who made 556 in 1930.
"It is flattering to be compared with the world's best player and the best player anyone's ever seen," Hughes said. "But 'm just a guy who wants to put the guys around me in the best position to win games of cricket and just keep improving my game really." * Reuters