If, as widely expected, Phillip Hughes is dropped again by Australia after just two scores over 36 in his last 19 Test innings, he will work hard on his almost comically obvious technical difficulties and I have no doubt that he will, if not exactly overcome them, compensate by becoming more orthodox at the crease – especially against the hard, swinging, seaming new ball. Thus much will be evident from observation of his work for New South Wales and by a glance at the scorebook. What will be less evident is the challenge he faces to make himself believe that he is a Test player having been told, twice, that he is not. (Forget what selectors and captains say and look, as always, at what they do).
If he wants advice on the mental side of his journey back to the Test XI (and he should) he doesn’t have far to look. Damien Martyn, a year younger than Phil Hughes, was dropped in January 1994 and waited until March 2000 before he was to wear his Baggy Green again. The stylish Western Australian had made fifty (one of only four in the match) in the first innings of his seventh Test, but his second innings six, in nearly two hours, left Australia six short of their victory target and Martyn six years short of his expected Test career. On his return, he batted at six, the most comfortable slot in the order and, with Stephen Waugh at five and Adam Gilchrist at seven, perhaps the most comfortable slot in any Test order in history. Hughes is unlikely to fit into a comfort zone like that any time soon, but a move away from the glaring light of opening might stop him looking like a rabbit in the headlights. Martyn, back for good, played sixty more Tests.
On debut, Darren Lehmann made a fifty in India and in his second Test 98 in Pakistan off an attack featuring Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed. Both matches were won at a canter, yet he was to play just three more Tests in the next four years – it wasn’t easy to get a place in that Australian XI! Like Matthew Hayden (another man with a stop-start Test career) before him, Lehmann found county cricket developed his game through its variety of conditions and opportunities to spend time at the crease and, though much maligned at that point in its history, prepared him well for his return to the Test arena. Phil Hughes has been advised well and is taking a position at Worcestershire in 2012.
For all the Martyns, Lehmanns and Haydens, there are far more Usman Afzaals, Aftab Habibs and, though it pains me to say so, Neil Fairbrothers, so Hughes’ task is not an easy one. He’ll spend hours in the nets, hours more studying videos and hours in the middle on the long road back, but I hope he finds time to speak to those who have traveled the journey before. And I hope that they are honest enough to reveal their doubts, since they must have harboured them, despite all the positive thinking mumbo-jumbo sports stars espouse – until they tell the truth in their autobiographies. Hughes greatest technical challenge is to get his head in the right place to play his shots – and that, metaphorically, is his greatest mental challenge too.