Australian Cricket Awards
More than a moustache: Merv joins Hall of Fame
The classic 'Aussie larrikin' who played hard and celebrated harder, Merv Hughes has earned a spot in Australian cricket's Hall of Fame for a 53-Test career that yielded 212 wickets
The 1988-89 summer of cricket, the last in a horror decade for the sport in Australia, followed an all-to-familiar script.
The mighty West Indies extended their decade-long hold on the Frank Worrell Trophy and also won the annual one-day tri-series, and the shock World Cup win of Allan Border's young team just a year earlier seemed more and more like an aberration than a promise of a new dawn.
But the summer also had an exciting footnote thanks to the emergence of an unheralded Victorian fast bowler, who Australia's dispirited supporters clung onto as a beacon of excitement and fun, if not of cricketing prowess.
This was the summer of Merv.
A pot-bellied, mustachioed right-armer, Mervyn Gregory Hughes had been in and out of the Australian side for the previous three years, but made a name for himself that summer when he ripped apart the famed Windies' batting line-up with 13 wickets from more than 73 tireless overs in the second Test in Perth. His career-best haul included the most unusual of hat-tricks, spread across three overs and two days, the first by an Australian bowler in three decades.
That Hughes' performance came partly as an act of vengeance after his pace partner, Geoff Lawson, had had his jaw shattered by a nasty Curtly Ambrose bouncer only endeared him further to a public crying out for a hero.
Almost overnight, what had been viewed as Hughes' limitations as a cricketer became loveable traits. His lengthy, angling run-up and unusual gait – English writer Alan Ross would label it "rather as if a lobster was nipping at his ankles" – became part of the Hughes package, and when he famously thrilled the MCG crowd with his warm-up routine in front of Bay 13 later that summer, those in the outer grew to love him even more.
A footy-loving, beer-drinking, working-class boy from Melbourne's western suburbs, Hughes was quintessentially Australian, a prankster who could ram his tongue into the ear of his captain (seriously) and somehow get away with it.
But deep below the macho bravado, underneath his trademark snarl and aggression, behind that famous moustache that would become his calling card, Hughes wasn't yet convinced he belonged.
"I didn't feel like I was part of the Australian team until probably the summer of 1990-91," Hughes, announced as the 56th person to be inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame today, tells cricket.com.au.
"Well, maybe not that I was not part of the team, but that was when I felt comfortable in myself being in the team.
"You can feel out of your depth, and it took me a long time because I was in and out of the team. That dents your confidence a bit; you think you're getting on a bit of a roll and then you get dropped from the side. Not being a major part of the side and not being one of the first selected, you're always worried about your position.
"I was comfortable playing club cricket, I was comfortable playing state cricket, but when it came to playing for Australia, there was a little bit of discomfort and uncertainty."
The self-doubt had started almost immediately after he was handed his Test debut – having played just 22 Shield games for Victoria – for the opening match of India's 1985-86 tour.
Having contributed a handful of dropped catches, a duck with the bat and figures of 1-123, he was jettisoned for the following Test, with Hughes joking today that while everyone remembers their Test debut, he tries his hardest to forget his.
A broadside from one of his childhood heroes, former Australia skipper Ian Chappell, only added to the ignominy, and a real fear his Test career was over before it had really begun.
"The problem with Merv Hughes," Chappell bluntly observed. "Is that he thinks he's a fast bowler."
"(My debut) was a massive slap in the face," Hughes remembers. "It was certainly a wake-up call.
"The step from state cricket to international cricket is massive. You see some guys grab it by the horns, but most guys take a little while to find their feet.
"At the end of that Test match, I was thinking to myself, 'I'll never play another Test match'."
Between his debut and the start of that memorable 1988-89 season, Hughes was a regular member of Australian touring parties but yo-yoed in and out of the starting XI, playing only six of 22 Tests.
In the 1986-87 Ashes, he played the first Test, missed the second, and then played the last three. The following season, he played the first Test and the last, but missed the three in between.
Even at the beginning of the 'Summer of Merv', Hughes wasn't considered good enough to start the series and only won his spot back – amidst plenty of criticism – after Australia were thrashed by nine wickets in the first Test at the Gabba.
And the fact he picked up just a solitary wicket in the three Tests that followed his WACA heroics only added to his uncertainty.
"When you have a go, when you put your best foot forward but you're not good enough, that's when you really doubt yourself," he says.
"And when you get dropped from the Australian side, when you get dropped from the Victorian side, it's a slap in the face and you have to figure out how to become better."
Picked for his first Ashes tour at the end of that summer, Hughes again viewed himself as a support bowler, firmly behind the likes of Terry Alderman, Geoff Lawson and Carl Rackemann in the pace pecking order. And when the latter was unable to start the series due to injury, he considered himself fortunate to win a spot in the XI for the opening Test.
With his waddle to the crease and portly physique, Hughes quickly became an easy target for the merciless English crowds, who would taunt him with chants of 'Sumo! Sumo!' during his two series in the Old Dart.
But as Australia's domination of that 1989 campaign played out and Hughes held his own – he would finish the series with 19 wickets to complement Alderman's 41 and Lawson's 29 – selectors saw no reason to change a winning side.
Yet even then, despite playing all six Tests of a historic Ashes triumph abroad, Hughes felt the axe hovering above his head.
"Everyone was saying, 'you're a contributor'," he says. "And I'm thinking yeah, I am a contributor but Craig McDermott was left out of that side, Mike Whitney was coming through and was unlucky not to be there.
"You look at those guys and you think if any fast bowler is going to go, it's going to be me."
Thankfully for him, the doubt didn't extend to his captain or coach, who viewed him not as a someone hanging on grimly to a spot in the side, but increasingly as the heartbeat of the team.
"He took so many of the hard wickets," coach Bob Simpson remembers in his book The Reasons Why.
"If 'AB' (captain Allan Border) was ever in a corner, he knew he could always throw the ball to Merv.
"We did not hit a lot of trouble on that tour, but when we did it was reassuring to have Merv coming to the rescue. What captain could ask for more?"
From the start of that '89 Ashes tour until the end of the next one four years later, Hughes missed only five of Australia's 45 Tests, taking 173 wickets at an average of 26.
No one in Test cricket during that time – not Ambrose, nor Waqar Younis or Wasim Akram – took more wickets than Hughes.
His status as a fan favourite had been rubber stamped in that '88-89 summer, but this was the arrival of Merv Hughes as one of the best fast bowlers in the world.
After years of self-doubt, he finally started to believe.
"I'd played a fair bit of cricket at that time and … I just grew in confidence," he says.
"I had self-belief and I probably asserted myself more and gave more to the team."
And as the wickets fell, the personality of Merv continued to grow and began to transcend the sport.
Tales of drinking and eating to excess became the stuff of legend and his reputation as one of the game's funniest and nastiest sledgers – depending on who you ask – continues to this day.
"He snarled at me constantly through his ludicrous moustache," former England skipper Mike Atherton wrote in his autobiography Opening Up of his run-ins with the man known as 'Fruit Fly' – the great Australian pest.
"He was all bristle and bullshit and I couldn't make out what he was saying, except that every sledge ended with 'arsewipe'."
To Australians, Hughes was the ultimate Aussie larrikin, whose big moustache and big personality endeared him to a public who want their sporting heroes to be just as they view themselves – likeable but without a hint of ego.
When the satirical news programme Frontline needed a working-class guest to make the show's clueless host Mike Moore appear more relatable to his blue-collar audience, they called in Merv.
By the time Hughes and the Australians returned to the UK in 1993, the expectation on him as a key player only intensified when, like that famous Perth Test against the Windies, a fellow pace soldier went down.
When McDermott doubled over in agony in the Lord's dressing-room on the opening day of the second Test, a twisted bowel ending the Queenslander's campaign and landing him in hospital, the responsibility to lead an inexperienced Australian attack fell squarely on Hughes' shoulders.
Once again, he did what was required of him, bowling 296.2 overs, the third most ever by an Australian paceman in an Ashes campaign in England, and taking 31 wickets as the Aussies retained the urn with two Tests to play.
And he did so despite the pain of an injured right knee that had yet to fully recover from off-season surgery and required ongoing specialist treatment during the four-month tour.
Hughes believes the significance of his injury has been mythologised in the nearly three decades since, but he concedes it contributed to the premature end of his Test career less than a year later.
"It was probably written up to be worse than it actually was," he says. "So I come across as a hero, but ultimately I just had a sore knee.
"(When the Ashes were retained) I was asked if I wanted to go home. But I said no. You don't want to miss a second of it.
"Did it cut my career short? It probably did. But ultimately if I had to make the decision again, I wouldn't change it for the world."
And yet, even after Hughes had taken 65 wickets across three triumphant Ashes campaigns in four years and risen to number three in the ICC Test bowling rankings, there remained an underlying sense in England that the man with the big mo and the big belly was still more pantomime villain than world-class cricketer.
In his post-series analysis, the vanquished Graham Gooch – who had been stripped of the England captaincy partway through the series – referred to his side's conqueror as 'dear old Merv Hughes'. Gooch's comments may not have intended to be as patronising as they sound but as Wisden noted the following summer when it announced Hughes as its Cricketer of the Year, Gooch wouldn't have used the same words to describe Dennis Lillee or Joel Garner.
But there's no doubt that among those whose opinions mattered the most to Hughes – his teammates and coaches – his contribution was highly cherished.
"In my opinion, Merv Hughes was one of the most underrated bowlers in the history of the game," Simpson writes.
"He will probably be remembered for his image rather than his 200-plus Test wickets … However, it would be an injustice if, within that image, he is underrated as an international cricketer or as a figure of huge importance to Australia.
"If you think of Merv Hughes as a great character, you're right. (But) … don't ever forget he was also a fine international bowler, in his own way and in his own time one of the very, very best."
The self-doubt has long since left Hughes, though there remains a self-deprecating streak that matches his enduring reputation as an 'Aussie battler'.
But as he joins the absolute greats of Australian cricket in the Hall of Fame, even he allows himself a moment of self-satisfaction.
"The introductions I get now when I do sportsman's nights and that, they say 'a great character of cricket' and I do think 'I did take 200 wickets'," he says.
"Everyone has an opinion and you've got to ride with that. If people want to remember me as a character that played and had fun, well, I certainly did that. If you want to remember me as someone who trained hard and had a go, I certainly did that too.
"On reflection, (being inducted into the Hall of Fame) is a reward for the effort you've put in. To be seen as a major contributor to Australian cricket, I couldn't be any more proud.
"I feel very fortunate that I played 50 Test matches over nine years. Yeah, I missed some, but to play for that long at the top level, I look back and – I've got to be honest – I'm pretty happy with myself."
MERV HUGHES CAREER STATS
M: 53 | Wkts: 212 | Ave: 28.38 | 5wi: 7 | BB: 8-87 | Runs: 1032 | Ave: 16.64 | 50s: 2 | HS: 72*
M: 33 | Wkts: 38 | Ave: 29.34 | 5wi: 0 | BB: 4-44 | Runs: 100 | Ave: 11.11 | 50s: 0 | HS: 20
M: 165 | Wkts: 593 | Ave: 29.39 | 5wi: 21 | BB: 8-87 | Runs: 2649 | Ave: 17.54 | 50s: 7 | HS: 72*
HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES
Inducted 1996 – Fred Spofforth, John Blackham, Victor Trumper, Clarrie Grimmett, Bill Ponsford, Sir Donald Bradman, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall and Dennis Lillee
Inducted 2000 – Warwick Armstrong, Neil Harvey and Allan Border
Inducted 2001 – Bill Woodfull and Arthur Morris
Inducted 2002 – Stan McCabe and Greg Chappell
Inducted 2003 – Lindsay Hassett and Ian Chappell
Inducted 2004 – Hugh Trumble and Alan Davidson
Inducted 2005 – Clem Hill and Rod Marsh
Inducted 2006 – Monty Noble and Bob Simpson
Inducted 2007 – Charles Macartney and Richie Benaud
Inducted 2008 – George Giffen and Ian Healy
Inducted 2009 – Steve Waugh
Inducted 2010 - Bill Lawry and Graham McKenzie
Inducted 2011 – Mark Taylor and Doug Walters
Inducted 2012 – Shane Warne
Inducted 2013 – Charlie Turner and Glenn McGrath
Inducted 2014 – Mark Waugh and Belinda Clark
Inducted 2015 – Adam Gilchrist and Jack Ryder
Inducted 2016 – Jeff Thomson and Wally Grout
Inducted 2017 – David Boon, Matthew Hayden and Betty Wilson
Inducted 2018 – Norm O’Neill, Ricky Ponting and Karen Rolton
Inducted 2019 – Cathryn Fitzpatrick, Dean Jones and Billy Murdoch
Inducted 2020 – Sharon Tredrea and Craig McDermott
Inducted 2021 – Johnny Mullagh (Unaarrimin), Merv Hughes and TBA