Vale Phil Hughes: cricket will never be the same again

Today marked the funeral of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes.  I commented on twitter that I have tried to write a tribute to him and started probably 20 drafts of such a tribute but just could not finish it.  Cricket has been a dominant force in my life since I was seven years old and in the 30 years hence I have been a player, a coach, an umpire  and a scorer as well as just being a student of the game.  The death of a player from an accident on the field has shocked me and saddened me more than I could ever have imagined.

I confess that I was not a massive fan of Phil Hughes: indeed I was oft a proponent of him not being in the team.  Equally I admired both his perseverance in the face of the adversity of being in and out of the Australian team and his keenness to seek to improve his game.  What shocked me most though was the fact that this accident could have happened to any one of the thousands of batters who play cricket each weekend or, indeed, in their back yards.  As a player I both was hit in the head by cricket balls and I hit batters in the head which has led, I am sure, to part of my shock at Phil Hughes’ loss because I keep seeing those I hit in my mind.

Phil Hughes’ untimely and tragic passing represents a significant moment of pause in the game.  Domestic cricket in Australia has been stopped, a test match against the super power of the game postponed and the cricket family the world around has been overt in its grief.  Today’s celebration of Phil Hughes’ life may lead to a lifting of the pause but it will also lead, in my view, to a seismic shift in the way the game is played (or at least I hope it will).

Of late I have bemoaned a lack of civility that has seemed to pervade the game.  Winning at all costs including the use of personal and vocal attacks on opponents and officials has become a talisman of the game and it has turned fans of the game away from it.  If the passing of Phil Hughes teaches those who play the game at all levels nothing, it must teach us that cricket is just a game.  Yes tempers will flare from time to time but surely the personal hyperbole and aggressiveness now must stop.  Life is too short and those closest to us can be taken away from us in a blink of an eye.  I hope in my heart of hearts that players, playing in the memory of Phil Hughes, are kinder to each other on the field.  I hope that is Phil Hughes’ legacy.

Many, principally non-cricket fans and those who wish to take advantage in situations like this, have pushed for a change to the laws of the game around the bowling of short balls.  In this regard there should, nay there must, not be a change in the way the game is played.  Short pitched deliveries have been part of the game since the days of Grace and Spofforth and this accident could have happened to any batter batting at any time in the games long history.

The cricket family has been united and vocal in its grief.  Now the cricket family must unite again and support those who return to the field to play in Phil Hughes’ honour: that is the best way we can all honour him.

Vale Phil Hughes.

The Ashes: We know who the openers are but who bats number 3 for Australia?

Darren Lehmann is off and running as the coach of the Australian cricket team and has started his “reign” by confirming before the last trial game before the 1st Test that Shane Watson and Chris Rogers will be the opening for Australia come 10 July. That decision means that neither of the incumbents from the last test match played by Australia, David Warner and Ed Cowan, will be retaining their former positions in the team.

Obviously, the Australian cricket team is in a state of flux with the appointment of a new coach and the only secure places in the batting order seemingly the openers (now that their positions have been confirmed) and that of the captain, wherever he decides to bat. That means that the number 3 position (assuming M Clarke doesn’t bow to the pressure of I Chappell and bat there) is up for grabs for the following contenders: P Hughes (the incumbent), D Warner, E Cowan and U Khawaja.

I think it would be fair to say that the issue of “who bats number 3?” has oft been a vexed question in Australian cricket. Regularly the best batsman in the team has been tapped on the shoulder to be the number 3 batsman. In this regard one only needs to look at where players like Don Bradman, Ricky Ponting and Greg Chappell spent the bulk of their careers in the Australia team. The only time that that standard does not seem to hold true is when the captain is also the best batsman in the team and declines to bat in that position. The eras of Allan Border and Steve Waugh are instructive in that context.

So if the best batsman in the team is the captain and declines to bat at number 3 what style of batsman should be invested with the obligation of going in at the time the first wicket goes down. In my opinion one only needs to consider the efforts of David Boon to come to the conclusion that the style of batsman that ought be given the role of number 3, in the absence of the best batsman in the team (which is not to say that Boon at points was not that batsman but I think it would be fair to say that when he started batting at 3 he was not), is an established opener. With David Boon at number 3 from the 1989 Ashes tour (bearing in mind that he had batted at 3 before this point) Australia was blessed with a batsman who had spent some 20 test matches at the top of the order for almost 1,500 runs at an average of 36.85. More to the point, in Boon Australia possessed someone who was extremely experienced in going in against the new ball such that if he was in early he was used to it.

Now at this point I am sure many of you are saying: so? We have Phil Hughes batting at number 3 for Australia and he is a former opener for his country so surely, based on your own measure, Hughes must get the gig? Simply though I do not believe that Hughes is good enough form to play the role that D Boon did for Australia for all of those years post 1989 and particularly not so for an Ashes series. Hughes is, after all, in his third coming as an Australian test cricketer and in this coming has been pigeon holed as a number 3 batsman. In his 7 test matches back in the test team he has scored 380 runs in 13 innings at an average of 29.23 and is without a hundred in that span. That is simply not good enough and I am of the view that a change needs to be made for the first test.

So which of the other contenders should be selected in Hughes’ place (if that change is made). I suspect that Darren Lehmann would be looking to avoid having a change at number 3 that would see another player who has not been in the test team of recent times in the team so that, unfortunately, counts out Usman Khawaja. Whilst I think he is a player of the future he has not done enough in my view in the preliminary games to make his selection a foregone conclusion. With avoiding too much change in mind I think Lehmann will avoid using Khawaja at number 3 on 10 July.

That makes the race for the other position in the “engine room” (as D Boon used to call it) between Ed Cowan and David Warner. Have there been two more contrasting styles in Australian cricket than these two players? As good a starting point as any is to consider their records over the last 12 months:

Cowan Warner

All told then there is not much difference between the two records save that Warner has scored more fifties and Cowan occupies the crease longer. Who should Darren Lehmann go for then come 10 July? Importantly, both records are largely commensurate with that of David Boon before he became Australia’s first choice number 3 batsmen albeit the strike rate of Boon is closer to that of Cowan than that of Warner.

I think it is important here to also consider the preparation of both players in advance of this first test. I have written earlier about trials and tribulations of David Warner this year. In raw cricket terms his lead in to the first test has consisted of playing in the IPL 20/20 competition, 2 games in the Champions Trophy and then a long stint on the sidelines (and no doubt practicing in the nets) as he serves his suspension for punching Joe Root.

Conversely, Ed Cowan has spent the start of the English summer playing first class cricket for Nottinghamshire. By the end of Australia’s current trial game against Worcestershire he will have played 9 first class games in English conditions. His form for Nottinghamshire in his 7 games for them has been solid without being flashy scoring 478 runs at 43.45. A final key point on Cowan’s run in to the first test is, that if selected, he will be playing on his home ground (for Nottinghamshire) Trent Bridge.

A final consideration here is the style of players Cowan and Warner are: can anyone cogently argue that they would feel more comfortable with Warner walking out to the crease with the score on 1/0 than Ed Cowan? I, for one, shudder at the thought of Warner coming to the crease with the score one down for not many.

All of the foregoing considered then, it must be pretty obvious the way I am leaning. If Phil Hughes is not selected, as I believe he ought not be, then I am firmly of the view that Ed Cowan should be Australia’s number 3 for the first test at Trent Bridge. The statistics, the lead in form and the stylistic considerations all point that way.