While NSW Blues opener Dan Hughes has been a model of consistency over the past few seasons, a phone call from national selector George Bailey has outlined what he must do to take the next step.
No player in the Marsh Sheffield Shield has faced as many deliveries as Hughes across the past three seasons and only Victoria’s Marcus Harris, who has played nine Tests, has scored more runs than Hughes’s 2,068.
But with a highest first-class score of 136, the national selectors want the 31-year-old to convert those smaller centuries into huge hundreds.
“I’ve had a conversation with George and he’s said what we’re looking for so I’m going to jump out of the pack and score those big runs,” Hughes told cricket.com.au.
“It’s something that I haven’t done – I know I’ve been consistent but that’s obviously not good enough and I know those big scores are what they’re looking for.
“It was great to have a conversation and have some clarity about where I am and what I need to work on.”
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Hughes had been on the selectors’ radar as far back as 2017, when he was picked in Australia A’s one-day squad to tour South Africa.
However, a week out from the start of the campaign, the players decided to cancel the tour as a result of the pay dispute between the Australian Cricketers’ Association and governing body Cricket Australia over the new Memorandum of Understanding.
Hughes says that was the last time he had heard from the selectors until the phone call from Bailey, who was appointed to the National Selection Panel in March this year fresh from calling time on his playing career.
“He’s been terrific,” Hughes said. “Since I got picked in the Aussie A tour to go to South Africa and it got cancelled, since then I haven’t had too much communication to where I stand and what I need to work on.
“The last three or four years I’ve played without knowing where I stood.
“It’s nice that they are thinking of you, they can give you some things to work on and you can set some goals for yourself, and that’s what I’ve done.
“It’s nice to get that feedback and George hasn’t been out of the game that long so he’s got relationships with the players, so it’s good to have that communication and conversation.”
Now that Hughes knows what he needs to do to be considered for Test selection, he has set his mind to it.
“One of my goals this year is to really jump out of the pack and turn one of those hundreds into a double,” he said.
“That’s what I’ve been doing the past three or four years – being consistent without two or three big scores.
“That’s what I’ve lacked the last couple of years, one of those big scores like a 150 or 200.”
To achieve that big score, Hughes spent the preseason spending more time in the nets for longer periods and working on the mental side of his game.
It takes hours and hours to score a first-class double century, making it difficult to stay in the moment and maintain concentration.
It is something Hughes has addressed with the help of NSW’s sport psychologist Gerard Faure-Brac as well as his teammates, who share their own experiences.
“You get to a point where you’ve been focusing on your skills that you forget about the mental part of the game,” Hughes said.
“It’s just knowing when you’re going through the ups and downs in an innings, identifying it, going through your routines and getting back on track.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do the past couple of years, nail the mental side of the game.
“With your skills it’s batting for long periods of time and doing the mental side of things to keep you out in the middle for longer.”
Hughes has also picked the brain of new NSW assistant coach Chandika Hathurusingha, the former Sri Lanka allrounder who has held coaching positions all around the world since his playing retirement in 2005, including as head coach of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and an assistant role with the Blues from 2011 to 2014.
Having worked with legendary batters like Kumar Sangakkara, Hathurusingha was happy to pass on the knowledge he gleaned to Hughes.
And the advice was as simple as it comes.
“(Hathurusingha) says to me, ‘How closely do you watch the ball? When I was coaching Sangakkara, he would say he could see the shiny side to see which way the guys were trying to swing the ball’,” Hughes said.
“That’s one of the things that’s kept with me over these past couple of months, is that he’s just told me to watch the ball closer.
“It sounds pretty simple and you think you’re doing it but until someone says it, it’s something I’ve started to do a lot better.”
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Hughes will be watching the ball closer than ever when NSW begin their title defence on Monday in Adelaide against Western Australia, with the goal to go back-to-back in 2020-21.
“I really want to nail these first four games,” he said.
“I know last year we didn’t get to play in a final and we’re all still hungry to play that final and win that Shield the right way.
“That’s one of the main goals, to start really well and then hopefully in the back end we’re in a position where we can play a final, which we probably won’t this year again, but to be in a position to take the Shield again.”