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When Phillip Hughes Announced Himself as a Special Talent

Phillip Hughes emerged as a rare talent when he scored centuries against South Africa in both innings of his second Test in 2009.

Durban: Phillip Hughes is a tough, pesky 20-year-old lefty from the sticks who bats and lives by his own lights.

Australia’s new opening batsman scores an awful lot of runs in any company, but in every other respect he is an ordinary lad, with a short haircut, a slight earring, a fondness for clothes, plenty of mates, no tickets on himself and a love for rugby league so strong that he spent his youth crash-tackling boys twice his size.

Phillip Hughes in the nets

Phillip Hughes in the nets.
Photo ©: YellowMonkey, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Armed with a willow, though, he enters another world, becomes astute, bold, confident, tenacious and resilient.

South Africa has thrown everything at him and he has shrugged and smiled and continued belting the ball around. Water off a duck’s back. Towards the end of his innings, a bowler stood at the top of his mark and called out “Is this bloke deaf?”.

A week ago the hosts did not think he could play. They looked at his technique and concluded that he was scared. Suffice to say they have changed their minds.

Unknown outside cricketing circles a fortnight ago, the southpaw has in a few days become the youngest batsman in the world to score two hundreds – 115 and 160 – in the same Test, beating by 200 days the record set in 1930 by West Indian great George Headley.

Largely on the back of his efforts, Australia was able to declare early on the fourth day with a massive lead of 545, giving it almost two full days to bowl out the South Africans and take a 2-0 lead in the three Test series. Midway through the day, the hosts were 2-84.

It is an astonishing achievement from a fearless young man who represents a revival of the old Australian strain of the working-class lad from the backwaters prepared to have a crack, a line some thought outdated.

Already it has been quite a journey for the young bloke.

Australia’s newest batting prodigy was raised by banana-growing parents in Macksville, near Coffs Harbour on the NSW coast. From the start he was mad on the game. Many fathers hang a ball in a sock so that sons and daughters can practise their strokes. Greg Hughes had to provide three balls before his son was satisfied. When darkness fell across the back veranda he would come indoors, put on his full cricketing regalia and rehearse his shots in front of the mirror until his Italian mother announced that supper was ready.

Although struggling, Greg found money for kit and petrol and gave the boy the best chance he could.

Hughes fought his way through the ranks, kept surprising all and sundry. It was hard but he persisted. He just kept scoring runs.

And then his chance came. After the debacles of 2008, the Australians were looking for young blood. The team had become ratty and middle-aged. Then Matthew Hayden retired.

With a place up for grabs in the final Sheffield Shield match before selection, Hughes grabbed his opportunity with two big scores. The message was clear. He was ready.

Selection followed. Macksville was agog. The publican promised to shout beers when Hughes was batting for his country.

I’ll give you a tip. He’ll go broke.

But Hughes fell for a gonza in his first dig, played a terrible shot, the sort calculated to embarrass a lesser man. He bounced back, reaching 75 in his second attempt.

The South Africans remained non-believers. His game seemed flirty, almost feckless. They were wrong. Yesterday Hughes played some startling shots, including tennis smashes against feared fast bowlers.

He can defend and he can lash. He is going to score buckets. He has figured out the odds, knows the angles, trusts his eye and likes batting. His technique may be homespun but that does not mean it does not work. He has fast eyes, feet and wits. And he’s going to play his part in a fresh, spirited and more vibrant Australian team.

This article was written for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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