New Hughes aims to silence the doubters

CAN a batsman eliminate a fatal flaw from his game in just one year? Can a batsman who has made a handsome living between point and cover, leaving vast expanses of the field untapped, reinvent himself as a more rounded player? Can a batsman caught in the cordon in his past four Test innings, and in 21 of 29 Test dismissals, resist temptation? Can he really?

Much as Mitchell Johnson's recall was greeted with snorts of derision from those who couldn't get past his previous waywardness, a nation of sceptics will believe that fellow whipping boy Phil Hughes has changed only when they see it for themselves in the Test arena.

But just as Johnson looked a more controlled bowler in his comeback match in Perth than when he was last seen at Test level, Hughes deserves a chance to prove he has risen above the technical trauma inflicted by New Zealand seamer Chris Martin last summer.

That experience might have crushed a less resilient character than Hughes. Equally, it will take more than runs against Sri Lanka, which does not boast a potent seam attack, to prove he has conquered his flaws.

Shielded from South Africa's potent pace attack, Hughes has been handed a chance to settle in a softer series against the Sri Lankans, against whom he posted his most recent Test century, and to cement a place for next year's Ashes. The logic is sound enough even if it seems a harsh call on Rob Quiney, who effectively was brought in as a battering ram against the Proteas because of his experience, while Hughes was earmarked for the future.

With that in mind, Hughes must now be backed for the next series in India, which precedes the Ashes, even if he stumbles against the Sri Lankans.

At 24, he is young enough to have changed ingrained habits, just as Matthew Hayden had to before he turned himself into a dominant figure at the top of the order, and he has had an ideal lead-in with his adopted state of South Australia. The first thing Victoria's bowlers noticed during Hughes' innings of 158 at the MCG last month was his footwork.

Instead of planting his back foot towards square leg, Hughes' first movement was a small step back and across, bringing his head in line with the ball.

He was still unorthodox, making him difficult to bowl to, but instead of constantly setting himself up to cut, he was keen to get on the front foot and drive.

He was also more prepared than the Hughes of old to leave outside off stump and when he was tested with short balls he made quick, clear decisions about when to pull and when to duck. The caveat was that the Victorian attack had been weakened by injuries and Test appearances and the pitch was flat.

Some believe Hughes' trademark cut shot is not the weapon it once was but this is a necessary sacrifice in tightening up his game.

For all the alterations Hughes has made, the selectors are counting on one thing to stay the same. With 20 first-class centuries by the age of 24, he is a natural-born run-scorer.

Though Hughes might not be the most popular choice to replace Ricky Ponting, feedback from Hughes' first-class opponents this season suggests this leopard might just have changed its spots.

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