Phillip Hughes has declared himself ready to grab his third chance as an Australian Test cricketer at Hobart this week and a far better batsman than the nervy swiper who blew his second shot at the same ground a year ago.
The 24-year-old batsman will replace the retired Ricky Ponting for the first Test against Sri Lanka starting on Friday, and might be forgiven for feeling butterflies as he walks out onto the crease at Bellerive Oval.
Hughes’s last innings at the picturesque ground ended with a dismissal of depressing familiarity in the second Test loss against New Zealand.
It was his fourth in the two-Test series off the bowling of seamer Chris Martin, his edge also the fourth to end up in the hands of fellow opener Martin Guptill, who snaffled the Australian twice in the gully at Brisbane and twice at second slip in Hobart.
The four identical caught-and-bowled’s read like an epitaph for Hughes’s second career, as selectors promptly threw him into the freezer for a year.
Coming out of the cold 12 months later, Hughes, long considered susceptible to short-pitched bowling, appeared wide-eyed and a bit flighty as he responded to verbal bouncers from reporters in Hobart on Tuesday.
“It was about 12 months ago to nearly the day I got dropped,” Hughes said with a nervous laugh, after stumbling with his words.
“Twelve months down the track I feel like I’m in a better place now.
“I’m coming in with confidence but overall I feel just a lot more I suppose settled, I feel very calm knowing I have been in this environment before.”
Hughes made a stunning entry to Test cricket as a callow 20-year-old in 2009, bashing a half-century on debut, followed by two consecutive tons in the following match on tour against a fierce South African pace attack.
The wheels fell off for him in the Ashes tour later that year as he was dropped mid-series after succumbing to short deliveries from England’s seamers time and again.
Re-instated six months later for a home Test against Pakistan, Hughes struggled again in the return Ashes series against England in 2010/11 before leaving selectors with little choice with further failures against New Zealand.
Rather than sulk, however, Hughes knuckled down to play himself back into the side, turning down a lucrative season in Australia’s inaugural domestic Twenty20 championship and moving to South Australia from New South Wales to rejuvenate his first-class career in the Sheffield Shield.
Hughes has turned to batting coach Neil D’Costa, a former mentor to Australia captain Michael Clarke, and has piled on the runs for his adopted state.
While regarding his protege an unfinished product, D’Costa believes Hughes could eventually hit 10,000 runs for Australia and says he has mastered the problems of technique that have seen him edge fast bowlers repeatedly to the slips cordon in his four-year Test career.
“I knew it was going to be tough get back … (But) it happened quite quick,” Hughes said.
“I feel like I’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes and I knew I had to make sacrifices along the way, and that was one, to pull out of the Twenty20 competition last year.
“I hit probably 70-80 per cent of my scoring options on the offside so I feel now that I’ve got both sides of the field covered.
“My legside play was just something big in my mind that I had to focus on.”
Hughes’s position in the batting order remains unresolved, with three other specialist openers already in the team.
Ed Cowan and Dave Warner have opened for the past year and although each have shown flashes of form, have rarely combined enough to cement themselves at the top of the order.
All-rounder Shane Watson has struggled to match his prowess as an opener further down the order, prompting pundits to suggest he should return to the top.
Hughes, who is likely to bat third or fourth against Sri Lanka, said he just wanted to make runs.
“I think the big thing is if I do get in, I want to make big scores and that’s what the great players do around the world,” he said.
“We’ve seen Michael Clarke this summer already,” Hughes said of his captain, who has smashed double-centuries in consecutive Tests against South Africa.
“Once he gets in, he cashes in and that’s what all batsmen want to do really. And that’s a big focus for mine.”