Oz new opener Hughes feels he belongs to the highest level

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Sydney, Feb.6 (ANI): Since the upheaval of World Series Cricket, only two batsmen have made their Australian Test debuts before their 21st birthdays. The third will be New South Wales opener Phillip Hughes during the first Test in Johannesburg in South Africa three weeks from now.

The two other 20-year-old batting debutants proved hard to shift. Stephen Waugh played 168 Tests and Ricky Ponting is still entrenched, 14 years after his debut.

To put Hughes in perspective, consider that he arrives with a better first-class average (60.38) than either of the two past Australian captains, having notched his first 1000 runs for NSW at a younger age than even Don Bradman.

But it was still a little slip of a kid who walked into the fabled world of the Australian cricket team yesterday wearing a dusty pair of white thongs.

A shy youngster might have bought the thongs but the huge square studs in either ear show there's some sparkle at the heart of quiet country boy.

Hughes says he feels certain that he belongs at the next level, certain of his game and certain of what he likes doing more than anything else in the world - making runs.

"I just like playing cricket, I love it so much," he said, almost incredulous at the idea there could be anything better than batting.

"Every day when I wake up, it could be nets, it could be in the middle, it could be a flat wicket, a wet wicket, in any situation, I just love getting runs," the Sydney Morning Herald quotes him, as saying.

The dream that began as an eight-year-old watching Waugh on the box with his father, Greg, edged another big step closer to fruition at 9.25 p.m. on Wednesday when Michael Brown, Cricket Australia's manager of cricket operations, made the call.

More comfortable with figures starting with 100, Hughes kept repeating the time. Doubtless he'll never forget it, although he was asleep when the phone rang.

"I think every kid growing up would love to play for their country and now to get that call last night, words don't express how I feel," he said.

There was very little sleep afterwards. Hughes might present as still not much more than a kid, but don't let size fool you.

"He's a tough little fella. He's got a great temperament, he's a great young lad, got great family and I think he's got all the attributes that will make him a long-term Test player," said his NSW skipper and fellow opener Simon Katich.

Even the unflappable Adelaide lawyer Andrew Hilditch, who doubles as chairman of selectors, caught the mood yesterday.

"It's one of the most exciting things I've had to do as a Test selector, picking a 20-year-old player who's scoring that volume of runs under pressure," he said.

"We probably haven't done this since Ricky Ponting."

And who cares about age? Certainly not Hughes.

"Age, what is age?" he said. "I see it as a great challenge and I can't wait."

The challenge he refers to is facing the fastest, deadliest pace attack in the world - Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini - on their home soil as they aim to complete their domination of Australia and claim the world No.1 ranking. If Hughes is scared, he's not showing it.

"I don't think it will be a case of him being overawed," Katich said.

"He hasn't been overawed once yet for NSW. I know it's different in Test cricket but just knowing what he's like, I think he'll handle it well," says Katich.

Katich, who watched from the other end as Hughes became the youngest player to score a century in a first-class final when he batted the Blues to victory at the SCG last March, marks him so highly for his character, his ability to perform under duress and because he already knows his game so well.

In fact, Katich rates Hughes the best-prepared Australian debutant in many years.

"The thing that he brings is class. He works hard, knows his game really well - to me he offers the complete package."

Hughes's coach and manager, Neil D'Costa, who guided Michael Clarke into Test cricket, reckons Hughes arrives at least as well prepared as Clarke - even though he'll be three years younger on debut than the incumbent Test vice-captain.

"He's been prepared for this from day one and I'd like to think he'll keep the calmness in his heartbeat," D'Costa said.

"But he wants to perform. Making this team is not enough for him. This is just a step and now he's got to perform. He'll be representing his country, he wants to play well and he wants to win.

I can't see him getting carried away and we've certainly got no big plans to try and chase every dollar and turn him into something he's not. He's a very humble, quiet, focused young sportsman," D'Costa added. (ANI)

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