The master of sledging and the formidable fast bowler Merv Hughes, born November 23, 1961, celebrates his 51st birthday today. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of one of the most colourful characters in the history of Australian cricket.
He was a character.
He ran up imposingly, sometimes up to 45 steps, to hurl them down. He bowled at the fastest that he could muster, looked threatening as he snarled his insults and glared down the wicket. Yet, the round midsection that definitively underlined his enormous dimensions made him look as unlike a fast bowler as humanly possible.
Merv Hughes was one of the most loved figures in Australia during his playing days, a sentiment perhaps not shared universally among his opponents. His Mexican handlebar moustache, his blatant intimidation of batsmen, and curious delivery action made him a favourite with the crowds.
And of course, there were the mischief and humour, beer guzzling, and his mastery of the art and science of that subject that is truly Australian – sledging.
Indeed, no discussion of sledging can be complete without Merv Hughes, figuring as prominently as his enormous bulk. He did capture 212 Test wickets, including a peculiarly split hat-trick, played leading roles in two Ashes triumphs, once even got runs against a four pronged West Indian attack – but all of it pales into relative insignificance when one considers his immense contributions in this colourful, if somewhat uncouth, area of international cricket.
It was his gift of getting under the skin of the opponent – no mean task given his size – that earned him the nickname ‘fruitfly’ – the biggest Australian pest. Steve Waugh, in his candid interviews, singled him out as his favourite animal. Michael Atherton devoted a significant passage in his excellent autobiography Opening Up to sledging techniques and particularly on Hughes.
In fact, Hughes co-authored a book named Merv Hughes’ Best Sporting Insults! In the introduction to this specialist’s view of a hitherto non-standardised skill, Hughes laments, “Why is that whenever the conversation turns towards sledging and insults in sports, everyone in the room turns and looks at me? I didn’t invent sledging and was certainly not the best at it. Perhaps I was more obvious, because I had to do it from the middle of the pitch, seeing as I could not be bothered to run right to the batsman’s end to deliver my insult sotto voice.” Saying this he launches into an almost academic discussion of the reasons, techniques and benefits of the sledge.
The encounters surrounding the sledges of Merv Hughes are legendary in their own right. When Javed Miandad called him a fat bus conductor, Hughes bowled him with his next ball and loudly demanded, “Tickets please!”
He used to single out players as well. Graeme Hick’s record in the 1993 Ashes was as much due to the brilliance of Hughes and Shane Warne with the ball as for the verbal baiting of the former.
And Hughes did it with a keen sense of humour. During the sixth Ashes Test at the Oval, in 1989, Atherton was singled out by Hughes. In Opening Up, Atherton writes: “(Hughes) snarled at me constantly through his ludicrous moustache … I couldn’t make out what he was saying, except that every sledge ended with ‘a***wipe’. I smiled and shrugged and saved my energy…. When I got to know Hughes I found him extremely affable, in a cuddly toy sort of way, and that helped me in our battles on the field. Afterwards I was able to laugh off his sledging.”
Hughes enjoyed repartees as well. In his book on Best Sporting Insults, he recounts how Robin Smith came back to him. After beating him three balls in a row, Hughes said, “You can’t f***ing bat.” Smith hit the next delivery for a boundary and responded, “We make a fine pair, Merv. I can’t f***ing bat and you can’t f***ing bowl.”
However, his conversation with Viv Richards, a hilarious exchange involving both ends of the big fast bowler, is not fit for graphic description in these pages.
There was more to Hughes than sledging
After a morose debut, in which Sunil Gavaskar and the others took 123 runs off him in exchange of just one wicket, his first Ashes series also ended in little success with just 10 wickets to show for his efforts.
It was when the West Indians visited in 1989-90 that Hughes bloomed into his full dimensions. At Perth he took five for 130 in the first innings, and eight for 87 in the second. In the process, he dismissed Curtly Ambrose with the last ball of an over, and then had Patrick Patterson with the first ball of his next to end the West Indian first innings, before getting Gordon Greenidge leg-before with the first ball in the second innings. It was a rare split hat-trick, but for all his efforts, he ended up on the losing side.
Having started as a relative rabbit with the bat, he also matured into a useful lower order hitter, plundering 72 off Malcolm Marshall, Patterson, Ambrose and Courtney Walsh at Adelaide.
However, his greatest feat came during his 1993 Ashes tour to England. While Shane Warne led the way with 34 wickets, and the crowd chanted “Sumo … Sumo” whenever he came on to bowl, Hughes was at his best, bowling at sustained pace and excellent line, picking up 31 scalps in all. On his mantelpiece till today there rests two replicas of the Ashes urns, from 1989 and 1993, amidst some excellent pieces of Waterford crystal.
Hughes ended up with 212 wickets at 28.38 from 53 Tests, every one of them played under Allan Border. He played a huge – literal and figurative – part in the turnaround of the Australian side from the strugglers of the 1980s into the champions by the mid-1990s.
When Hughes skied Phil Edmonds to be caught by Gladstone Small in 1986-87 – in his second series – England won the Ashes. After Hughes and the others got their acts together and rose together as a great team, they did not win it again for another 18 years.
Unfortunately, when Michael Vaughan’s men put it across Australia in that enthralling summer of 2005, Hughes was a selector. “It used to be black and bushy, and it’s still bushy, but there aren’t many black hairs left. Quite a lot of them turned grey during the Ashes tour of 2005,” Hughes recounted about his famed moustache in 2006.
Along with David Boon, he formed part of what must be the most bushy set of selectorial faces since the days of Lord Hawke. However, not all his decisions and comments as a selector were appreciated by the players and public, and neither did the loss of the number one ranking make his tenure too distinguished.
However, people still remember his larger-than-life presence as he ran into bowl in that mincing run up, his exuberant theatrics on the pitch and his zest for the game. And they do so with a lot of fondness.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)