The rises and falls of Phil Hughes

John Townsend

Phil Hughes has been Australia's 'nearly man' during a career played at the far ends of a spectrum extending from overhyped expectation to spectacular failure.

He nearly made it as an opener.

Twin centuries against the might of South Africa's pacemen in just his second Test confirmed his grand promise before it wilted in England on the 2009 Ashes tour.

Then he nearly made it at No.3.

Replacing Ricky Ponting was no challenge for a shrinking violet and though Hughes was not expected to become the ruthless match winner that his predecessor had been, he flattered before failing to grasp his opportunity.

Hughes flirted without success with middle-order chances, briefly owned a share of the Test 10th-wicket partnership record with Ashes debutant Ashton Agar and has been more noticeable in recent seasons for the nature of his departures rather than his arrivals.

His failures against India's spinners last year were legendary. He didn't move his feet unless he was charging blindly. His pads were impediments. His gloves manacles.

His hands were of stone, which is helpful for a boxer but deadly for a batsman facing a relentless slow-motion examination in a foreign language.

The most idiosyncratic and polarising batsman of his generation, Hughes was equipped nonetheless with enough steely self-belief to resist the constant barbs about his unorthodox batting style and inability to nail down a permanent Test place.

The number 26 is the most critical in his cricket profile. Hughes has played 26 Tests, has hit 26 first-class centuries and this week will turn 26.

Only Don Bradman, Greg Chappell and Ponting - conceivably Australia's three greatest batsmen - hit more centuries at a younger age.

Yet Hughes has been dropped five times during that 26-Test run and has been forced to make and remake his career over nearly a decade spent mostly sparking heated public debates over his right to a baggy green cap.

The product of a banana plantation in Macksville, half-way between Sydney and Brisbane, Hughes rose rapidly to the NSW team where he made his debut at 18 and a year later became the State's youngest centurion in nearly half a century.

It was inevitable that he would play Test cricket and was soon elevated to the Australian team where he managed 75 in the second innings of his debut in Johannesburg and, a week later in Durban, aged just 20, became the youngest Test batsman to score centuries in both innings.

An Ashes tour followed but Hughes would soon lose his way, though he had a far-reaching impact in the social media sphere by using Twitter to announce his axing from the team.

His search for clarity and consistency took him to Adelaide in 2012 where he joined South Australia and continued his trait of scoring large volumes of runs for his State without being able to convert that form into a permanent Test berth.

A career-high 243 not out for Australia A against South Africa A in August, a limited-overs tour to Zimbabwe and recent role as a reserve Test batsman against Pakistan suggested he was getting closer to his sixth Test call-up.

Michael Clarke's hamstring injury opened the door for Hughes until the cruellest blow of his career struck him down today with a Test berth within reach.

A doughty fighter with bat in hand or working to regain a lost place, Hughes now faces the toughest fight of his life.