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Australian selectors punt on Phil Hughes

CHRIS BARRETT AND CHLOE SALTAU
Last updated 09:41 06/12/2012

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After a year in the international wilderness, Phillip Hughes is set to be given the opportunity to forge a long-term Test career with a recall for Australia's series opener against Sri Lanka next week.

National chairman of selectors John Inverarity will on Thursday announce the Australian squad for the first Test in Hobart and it is expected to include Hughes as the replacement for the retired Ricky Ponting, as the 24-year-old gets the nod over fellow contenders Rob Quiney and Usman Khawaja.

Hughes's last Test almost a year ago was coincidentally in the Tasmanian capital but he has demanded the attention of the selection panel by topping the Sheffield Shield run-scoring tally to date this season at an average of 51.8.

The Macksville left-hander, whose off-season move from NSW to South Australia has proved a masterstroke, is tipped to bat at No 3, with Shane Watson shifting down a place to fill Ponting's vacant position and captain Michael Clarke remaining at No 5.

Clarke's two double centuries against South Africa won him man-of-the-series honours but have not come without a cost. The captain has been ordered to rest because of back soreness. He will miss Saturday night's Twenty20 Big Bash derby between Sydney Thunder and Sydney Sixers - he is the western Sydney franchise's captain - but is expected to be in no doubt for the first Test, which starts on Friday week.

Elsewhere, there are unlikely to be any big surprises in the Australian squad for Hobart. Having impressed on his Test return after a year out of the side, Mitchell Johnson is poised to be retained in a fast-bowling unit that includes the returning Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus - both left out of the WACA Ground Test because of fatigue and minor injuries - as well as Mitchell Starc.

The door for Hughes's latest chance was opened by the retirement of Ponting, who announced before the third Test against South Africa in Perth that it would be the last in his illustrious 17-year international career. It is not only a fresh start but a fresh challenge for Hughes, in a new position in the batting order. His previous 17 Tests, in which he made three hundreds, have all been as an opener.

Hughes's recall represents the ultimate show of faith from the selectors in the work he has done to reinvent himself since he was axed after compulsively nicking New Zealand seamer Chris Martin to the slips almost exactly a year ago.

It is also a choice made with the Ashes in mind, given Hughes has just turned 24. He retreated from the spotlight to correct his technical flaws and open up his leg-side game, undertaking two batting boot camps with his personal coach Neil D'Costa and spending the winter in England.

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Close observers of the left-hander this season believe he has tightened up his game outside off stump without detracting from his ability to strike boundaries and score quickly.

Even critics of his unusual technique believe Hughes is blessed with a knack of making hundreds; he has a remarkable 20 first-class centuries and scored three tons in his first two incarnations as a Test batsman.

The decision to revive Hughes's international career is a setback for Khawaja, who is regarded as having the purest technique for Test cricket of all the contenders, but he has some ground to make up with his fitness, running between wickets and fielding.

The 25-year-old is said to have been disconsolate on Wednesday after being told he would be yanked out of the Chairman's XI game against the touring Sri Lankans after two days to represent Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash League. Effectively, Khawaja went from being a Test aspirant to the pawn in a compromise between Cricket Australia and the Thunder, who were unhappy about Test captain and marquee signing Clarke being withdrawn.

Quiney was also on the shortlist but his hopes were seriously dented when he made a pair in the Adelaide Test before Shane Watson returned from injury.

Australia (likely squad): Cowan, Warner, Hughes, Watson, Clarke (c), Hussey, Wade, Johnson, Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Starc, Lyon.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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