Red-hot form ... Phillip Hughes.

Red-hot form ... Phillip Hughes. Photo: Getty Images

PHILLIP HUGHES underwent two high-intensity batting boot camps with mentor Neil D'Costa which helped transform the opener from a walking wicket for New Zealand to the man regarded as favourite to replace Ricky Ponting in the Test team.

Even as Hughes made his blistering start to Test cricket in 2009, D'Costa knew it would only be a matter of time before opponents got the measure of the boy wonder, but after a year in the wilderness he believes his star protege is ready for a Test recall.

Hughes is in a battle with fellow Test discards Usman Khawaja and Rob Quiney and uncapped Tasmanian Alex Doolan for the berth vacated by Ponting. On runs alone, Hughes has mounted a compelling case to take over for the first Test against Sri Lanka starting next week in Hobart. With 518 runs at an average of 51.8 from five games, the boy from Macksville is this summer's leading run-scorer in the Sheffield Shield and on track to crack the 1000-run mark. He also sits second for most runs in the one-day competition.

In contention ... Usman Khawaja.

In contention ... Usman Khawaja. Photo: Getty Images

Equally as important, it is the manner Hughes has accumulated those numbers that is providing the best indication yet his next stint in the baggy green will be more prosperous than his last.

Although he remains powerful through his favourite regions of point and cover, he has improved his range of shots and is now scoring more freely through the on side.

Hughes and D'Costa are guarded on the exact changes they have made but the left-hander has slightly opened up his stance, which allows him to present a straighter bat to the ball angled across him and reduce the opportunity for edging to the slips.

Consistent ... Australian batsman Rob Quiney.

Consistent ... Australian batsman Rob Quiney. Photo: AFP

''Certain set-ups will cause what I call blind shots in your game - certain balls and areas are very difficult to play and that's what was happening,'' D'Costa said. ''Different balls that were giving him challenges before aren't [now], and shots that he didn't have before he has now.

''The fact he's rocking back and pulling the fastest bowlers in domestic cricket says a lot because that wasn't happening two or three years ago. He wasn't taking the ball into the wagon wheel as he is now.''

It's almost a year since Hughes had his confidence shattered during a nightmare series against the Black Caps, after which he withdrew from the Big Bash League and had his game systematically pulled apart and reassembled by D'Costa in a bid to iron out the technical and mental flaws that led to his Test dumping.

"I feel like I?m as ready as I?ll ever be" ... Alex Doolan.

Bolter ... Alex Doolan. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Hughes then road-tested the reforms in the second half of the Shield season early this year, with only moderate returns, before undergoing another six-week camp leading up to his stints at the Centre of Excellence and English county Worcestershire during the winter.

''I feel like I'm a lot better player than 12 months ago,'' Hughes said. ''I have worked on one thing … but I'm not going to go into it. It has improved my game all around the park, I'm scoring in different areas and I feel like when the bowlers are bowling straighter, I can play my leg-side shots a lot better than I did 12 months ago.

''It all boils down to the one thing I have worked on technically - I knew I had to make technical changes and I did make this one thing … this one thing just clicked.''

Hughes is yet to test his new game at international level but there were encouraging signs while playing for Australia A against South Africa when he withstood a fierce second-innings spell from Dale Steyn described as the fastest seen from the speedster in seven years.

''Everyone knew when he went back where to bowl to him - at his armpit or angling across him with a little bit of movement,'' D'Costa said. ''He knew he was going to come under that scrutiny, which he has. He's now the leading run-scorer in the Sheffield Shield. If you're asking who's been tested I would argue he's been tested at the highest level. If his weaknesses were so bad and so publicly-known, either our domestic bowlers are shit or he's improved - it's one way or another.''

D'Costa believes Hughes has a greater attention to detail now compared with when he made his Test debut, and is a big admirer of the youngster's work ethic.

''Phil has a burning desire to be the best player, some people go the extra yard to do that,'' D'Costa said.

 

THE CONTENDERS

Pros and cons of the players in line to replace Ricky Ponting.

Phil Hughes

The case for: The 24-year-old knows how to succeed at Test level and his red-hot form for South Australia in both forms of the game suggests he deserves another crack. He also has the backing of some highly knowledgeable figures in Australian cricket. If he succeeds this time Australia may have found the next-generation batsman capable of being the long-term replacement for Ricky Ponting.

The case against: The horrors of the 2010-11 Ashes and the series against New Zealand last year are hard to erase from the memory bank. Ponting flourished at Shield level but was found wanting by the Proteas, so can Hughes translate domestic form into the international arena?

Usman Khawaja

The case for: The former Test No.3 was starting to find his feet at international level when he was axed just three games after stroking a valuable half-century in Johannesburg last year. Has played some vital innings for Queensland this season, including one against NSW in front of captain and selector Michael Clarke.

The case against: Although the third leading run-scorer in the Shield, Khawaja’s numbers are solid rather than spectacular. Selectors were concerned last year over his range of shots, running between the wickets and fielding. The jury remains out on those areas of his game.

Rob Quiney

The case for: The Victorian has been one of the most consistent players at Shield level in the past few seasons. It’s only a month ago he made a classy 85 for Australia A against South Africa. Unlike Hughes and Khawaja, he is a superb fielder with a safe pair of hands and also serviceable with the ball.

The case against: The left-hander did not exactly seize his opportunity in his two Tests against the Proteas, making scores of 9, 0 and 0. The near identical manner of his dismissals in Adelaide is a concern, especially with an Ashes campaign in England next year, and at age 30 selectors may go for a younger option.

Alex Doolan

The case for: The bolter of the field, the Launceston product rushed into Test calculations with a stunning season for Tasmania. His unbeaten 161 for Australia A against the Proteas was outstanding as was his 149 against South Australia when he matched Ponting for style and scoring rate.

The case against: The Tasmanian has failed to pass 50 in each of his past two Shield games and is the most unproven of the four contenders. There is a feeling the 27-year-old may need another year or two of prolific scoring to prove his worth.