Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Golden Boy

If you wanted an insight into the other side of the World Series Cricket saga, it would be hard to go past Christian Ryan's 2009 biography of Kim Hughes, Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the bad old days of Australian cricket.  Unlike many of his famous contemporaries, Hughes never wrote his own memoirs, and he didn't cooperate with this bio either.  Nonetheless it's a highly sympathetic account of his career.

In 1977 Hughes was a promising young player on the fringes of the Australian test team.  Hughes claims that he turned down an offer to join WSC, while key WSC figures claim no offer was ever made.  Either way, he ended up on the Australian Cricket Board side of the war and with the top players missing he moved instantly from fringe player to mainstay of the batting order.  By 1979, in his 11th test, he found himself captain of the struggling young Board team.

What happened from there on shows that the peace between the combatants in the dispute was hardly more than skin-deep.  There was little controversy in the captaincy returning to Greg Chappell once the WSC players returned to official test duty.   Yet when Chappell began to decline overseas tours a couple of years later it was as if the war had never gone away.  Veteran wicketkeeper Rod Marsh publicly campaigned for the job, with the support of senior WSC figures like Dennis Lillee, who was still playing, and Ian Chappell, newly installed in the Channel 9 commentary box.

When the role went to Hughes instead, the response from these senior figures was far from gracious.  Both Marsh and Lillee hesitated publicly before agreeing to tour under Hughes.  Once in the team, they did everything they could to undermine him.  Marsh sat in surly silence during team meetings, and then loudly disputed Hughes' field placements during the game.

Marsh's close mate Lillee was even worse.  Whenever Hughes entered the nets for batting practice, Lillee would switch to his net and pepper him with full pace bouncers.  Hughes bore it all patiently, trying to win them around with courtesy and respect, but these were not men inclined to forgive and forget.  Younger team-mates were appalled.

Nor did Hughes get a lot of support from elsewhere.  One of Ian Chappell's jobs during home tests was to interview the two captains on the field after the coin toss.  Questions normally revolved around the pitch and the weather, but Chappell's questioning of Hughes was so pointedly hostile that Hughes refused to speak to him.  Nor was Greg Chappell, drifting in and out of international matches before becoming a selector, any more help, trying on a number of occasions to talk Hughes into resigning.

In one way, the final retirement of Greg Chappell, Lillee and Marsh in 1984 should have taken the pressure off Hughes.  Yet with the removal of the players who were undermining his leadership came another problem - his team now lacked quality and experience.  Nor was he unscarred himself.  The pressure told on both his leadership and his batting.   By the end of 1984 Hughes had resigned the Test captaincy in a tear-soaked press conference, much to the horror of his deputy Alan Border who had to take the poison chalice from his hands. His career as a player only lasted two more tests, in which he scored a total of two runs.

A quick glance at Hughes' career record suggests he was a moderate performer with the bat and a terrible captain.   However, this is one case where statistics may just be lying to us.  International cricket teams had no coaches in those days, with the show being run by senior players.  With no coach to help fix things, and no support from senior players, faults in Hughes' batting technique grew and left him exposed.  He couldn't go home to Perth to sort out the problems because Lillee and Marsh were his team-mates there too.  It's hard to work on your batting technique when your net sessions are spent trying to stop the world's scariest fast bowler from knocking your head off.  It's hard to be a successful leader when your supposed followers are heading in a different direction.

Every war has its casualties.  Many young players suffered in Kerry Packer's War, none more so than Kim Hughes, the one time Golden Boy of Australian cricket.

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