RETURNING to the scene where his Test career was terminated a year ago, Phillip Hughes must have felt like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, turning up at the auction of his own estate.
There were many who still needed convincing. Was this really the same Hughes who had found that the shortest route to the Sheffield Shield was via second slip? What were the mysterious technical tweaks that had transformed him, like some Peter Slipper in creams, into a man who could play both sides of the wicket?
A year ago, dismissing Hughes was so easy John Howard could have done it. OK, maybe not, but anyone who could get the ball to the other end had a fair chance. Hughes's bat seemed fatally attracted to anything in the neighbourhood of off-stump; the so-called corridor had lost its uncertainty.
The new Hughes again played that splay-footed, open-bladed poke to the slanted delivery. The difference was, he played it to the 95th ball he had faced. He had been at the wicket for more than two hours, and it ran off the face of the bat for four. He had not played the shot before and did not do so again. When he was finally dismissed for 86, he was the only Australian who had demanded that good bowling get him out.
Otherwise, Hughes was watertight. This, rather than any of the microscopic and somewhat occult adjustments to his technique, was the outstanding feature of his innings. He walked out like a young man who had scored three centuries at this level, and carried himself in the manner of a Test cricketer. Perhaps the technical changes added to it, but this Hughes had a wholesome, calm bearing, a total contrast to the nervous wreck of a year ago.
The first requirement of a number three is that he solidifies the batting line-up and stops the fall of a wicket from turning into a collapse. Hughes achieved this through partnerships with David Warner and Shane Watson.
Warner was patiently building towards a big score, grooving his forward defence to wear a brown stripe in the turf in the direction of mid-off. He had some chancy moments when the bowlers angled in from wide of his off-stump, but was constructing an opener's innings at Test-match tempo until the last over before lunch when he was run out. Bad calls often lead to bad ends.
After lunch, Hughes and Watson carried on as unexcitingly as a pair of Canberra suburbs, but this was not a bad way for Australia to play. The risk after the tumult of the South Africa series and the prospect of a popgun attack was that the hosts would lose their discipline. To the contrary, Australia played a dour, basic version of Test cricket, applying the fundamentals when devils of temptation must have been softly whispering in their ears.
It will be hard to assess Hughes 3.0 until he faces more forensic fast bowling on livelier wickets. His strengths are still his strengths, and his weaknesses have not been dissolved. He preferred to attack the ball going past him, and did so with timing and power. He hit one extraordinary six off Rangana Herath, stepping down the wicket, finding himself short of the pitch of the ball, and turning his wrists so that a lofted drive became something akin to a sweep, yet sailed over long-on. He's been through the desert, and this was a shot with no name.
On the other hand, his reactions to well-pitched balls on the leg-side were, as in the past, more in the nature of checking and glancing than confident on-driving. The important thing might be that he has found a balance between listening to what people are telling him and understanding that if he was all that riddled with flaws, he could not have made it to this level in the first place.
Sri Lankans were not incapable of bowling at his soft spot, but they didn't seem able. Creating this illusion was Hughes's victory. His posture seemed more upright, getting him over the top of the danger ball, playing off the back foot rather than creeping forward and sending out the feelers. Defensively, he brought the bat down through the line rather than inside-out, knocking the ball back down the pitch instead of letting it run away behind point.
These were the outward signs of a more settled mind. Perhaps the real difference in the new Hughes is that he is a year more mature and several dozen innings more experienced. Giving a young player a spell in the wilderness has become a formula, but in Hughes's case, at least for now, it appears to have worked. Perhaps the question should be why missing the past 10 Test matches has given him a stronger sense of belonging to this grade than did playing in the previous 10.
The story Hughes emerges triumphant after a spell in wilderness first appeared on WA Today.