Monday 12 December 2011

What John Jacobs could teach Justin Langer about Phil Hughes

John Jacobs has coached golf to Open champions and desperate hackers for sixty years. He has a wisdom that comes only from decades of observation, and he has distilled that knowledge down to one universal thought: you can learn everything you need to know about a golfer's swing by watching what the ball does once it's been struck. It's fantastically obvious and wonderfully true, and it applies equally well to cricket. All that matters is that moment when bat meets ball. You could discover how to coach anything by talking to John Jacobs.

It's unlikely that anyone will ask Jacobs about Phillip Hughes, but the old master would recognise the unerring predictability with which the ball flew from the edge of Hughes' bat to second slip. After all, it's just happened four times in a row. And yet as Hughes slides sadly out of Test match cricket and into a future as uncertain as it once was gilded, it's Jacobs' thought that reverberates, that holds true.

It's a philosophy of reverse engineering, of learning before teaching. He examines the outcome before he thinks about what caused it. What caused Hughes to keep edging to second slip? Well...

Spring 2009: Phil Hughes comes to England to play for Middlesex on a short-term contract ahead of the Ashes. He has just played his first three Test matches, against South Africa, where he scored 0, 75, 115, 160, 33 and 32. He appears in three first-class games for Middlesex, scores another three hundreds and averages 143.50. It's no surprise. His life has been filled with such success: he scored 141* on his grade debut in Sydney, made 51 and 137 for New South Wales seconds to ensure a first-class debut where he got 51, and then scored a match-winning hundred in his first Pura Cup Final. He plays in the first two Ashes Tests of 2009, makes 36, 4 and 17 and is replaced by Shane Watson. The first coming of Phil Hughes is over.

His dropping was complicated by the way Hughes scored his runs. He was, like Bradman, a country boy coming out of nowhere, defying convention. Where The Don picked the bat up differently, Hughes ignored one of the immutable laws of batting and stayed legside of the ball, from where he carved and sliced through the offside and mowed down the ground like Nadal hitting a low forehand. Even in an age at ease with unorthodoxy Hughes was too much, and yet it was unorthodoxy that made him devastating, that set him apart.

Flintoff and Harmison went hard at him in Cardiff and at Lord's, and he was an appealing target. The great and unmentioned facet of the way he played was that staying legside of the rising ball had always been, in the accomplished batsman, a mark of cowardice. The only reason for not getting into line was a fear of being hit. That wasn't why Hughes did it, but he was fighting a century's worth of conventional wisdom, and almost subconsciously it played into a wider notion that he would have to re-invent his technique if he was to succeed as a Test match player.

The weird magic that Phil Hughes possessed has all but perished in the effort to do so. He is now just another lefty who gets caught at slip a lot. It needn't be that way. Almost universally, by the time a player arrives in Test match cricket, he cannot be radically changed. Coaching at that level is holistic, rather than prescriptive. It's about tuning the engine, not rebuilding it. England have integrated two deeply unorthodox players since 2005, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan. Both came into the Test match team with the dark thought that they were really one-day players trailing behind them. Pietersen's first Test innings were frenetic and free, quite different to his more measured game now. It's a solution that he arrived at by himself, without altering the essential structure of how he plays. Similarly, Eoin Morgan has not been asked to bat differently in the Test side: he will, you sense, stand or fall as what he is.

England perhaps learned from their experiences with two bowlers, Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, who were almost ruined by trying to drag their methods too far from the place they had arrived at naturally. It very rarely works.

Phil Hughes went to his first Test hundred with consecutive sixes. Doubt was not in his mind then. John Jacobs would have looked first at where the ball was going and what it was doing before he considered how it was getting there. Where it was going was to and over the boundary, usually at great speed. There was the starting point, the moment that things might have been different.

To a greater or lesser extent, every player gets found out, worked out, worked over. For the best, this happens at Test level because it's the only standard high enough to do it. Nothing unexpected happened to Phil Hughes. What's shocking now is how quickly he was first discarded and how completely his methods were written off. He gets caught at slip as often as he ever did before, and he doesn't score any runs either.

It's hard to go against the knowledge and commitment of someone like Justin Langer, who has been working with Hughes, but it's necessary too. Orthodoxy has laid low something special. The young, fearless Hughes was an extraordinary sight, and that has been lost in a world of doubt and confusion on the part of his coaches as much as himself.

Cricketers aren't like golfers, they don't have the luxury of deciding not to win or earn much money for a couple of years while they completely rebuild their technique [and years, from the examples of Woods and Faldo, is how long it takes]. Just worry about what it does after it comes off the bat, Phil, and good luck.


Anonymous said...

Interesting (as always) but I'm not convinced by the analogy. The golf ball isn't moving when you hit it and the contact isn't as fine. The ball shapes less through the air and there's a far greater variety of shot in cricket. I also think it is doubtful an Australian would have the concentration span necessary to get to the end of the post. ;)

LordAram said...

Excellent article.

I tend to agree that Hughes should be allowed to do what he does best. The kid's got talent. He should be encouraged to go out there and tee off. Hate to see him curb his natural ways and fall out of sight as he struggles to adjust. If he is going to fall away, I'd rather see him play his game in the process. There is room for refinement with everyone and he should not be totally left to his own devices. So tinker but don't tamper.

...and to the person above, this Australian managed to make it to the end. I know, I surprise myself sometimes.

Kijoh said...

Hughes has been deconstructed mentally & technically by Tim Nielsen, Hilditch & Langer. While his inability to play on the leg side (glance, pull, hook) needed to be corrected, his whole stance and approach to a delivery has been changed, stunting his natural attacking ability. Hopefully time out of the team will get him back to his basics and allow him to keep piling up tons of domestic runs. He's still so young, he's got plenty of time to come back and I hope he does.

Stewart said...

Nice piece, but one point of clarification. Harmison didn't play in the Cardiff Test, but he still played a vital role in the disintegration of Hughes. I can't recall the actual match, but Harmison worked him over thoroughly in a warm-up match prior to that Test. This highlighted his vulnerabilities to the short bowl, a trait exploiited by Flintoff and others in the first two Tests of 2009, leading to Hughes being dropped. Ironic really that Harmison's greatest contribution to the 2009 Ashes win didn't actually involve his performance in a Test Match.


Bwoo said...

Hughes is a wonderful talent. The article is spot on - Luckily his mentor D'Costa is outstanding and I believe Hughes will be back. Control is the big issue for Hughes , as he tempers his impulsivity we should see the emergence of a genuinely unique test player for at least a decade.

pay per head service said...

haha a rather well written post one more time my friend, and John Jacobs could teach Justin Langer many more things about Phil Hughes in my opinion

Vaibhav Garg said...

I light of what transpired recently, your comments on cowardice and getting out of line of the rising ball to the legside seem clairvoyant and prophetic.

Oh, how would I have liked to have a coward Hughes still alive!