There was no mistaking the dejection in Steve Waugh's voice as we spoke on the opening day of the Old Trafford Test. Australia had made fairly serene progress in the first session, but the batting meltdowns at Trent Bridge and Lord's had made him wary. As did the nature of the pitch. "It was very different back then," he said, harking back to the surface on which he made two hundreds to transform the 1997 Ashes.
On a pitch that started off as a seamer's paradise before brownness and scarring played into Shane Warne's hands, Waugh played what he called his finest Test innings, 108 out of a total of 235. In the second innings, batting with a badly bruised right hand, he made 116. England tallied 162 and 200 to lose by 268 runs.
Waugh won eight of the nine Ashes Tests in which he led - the Sydney loss in 2003 came with Australia 4-0 up - but his approach to the contests was shaped by his first experience of them, in 1986-87. He scored 310 runs and took 10 wickets at 33.6, but England won 2-1 on Australian soil. The scars from that defeat would serve as inspiration for the rest of his career.
As he reminded the kids who were part of the event we attended, it took him 13 Tests to taste victory in Australian colours. He went twice as long without a Test hundred. When he broke through, in the first Test of the 1989 Ashes, the Wisden Almanack wrote: "In more than a century of Tests, there cannot have been many better maiden hundreds than Waugh's at Headingley."
I put it to him that selectors no longer show such patience. Just look at what happened to Phillip Hughes in the ongoing Ashes series. Up and down the order like a yo-yo and then dropped despite the promise of the 81 he made at Trent Bridge. "My bowling basically kept me in the team," said Waugh, who averaged 30.52 after those first 26 Tests. "That was a period of change in Australian cricket, with 16 players going to South Africa on a rebel tour.
"The key in any selection is that if you pick someone, you've got to give them an extended run, a chance to relax and to show how good they are. If you keep chopping and changing teams, it's really hard to get your confidence. The good thing with those selectors back then was that they stuck with the team and they believed we were going to be good enough. They gave us an opportunity to work it out."
Such an enlightened approach was not new to Australian cricket. Greg Chappell, one of the selectors at the time, had been part of another Ashes touring parting that was given little chance, in 1972. It was a wretched time. There has been a 4-0 shellacking in South Africa, and Ray Illingworth's Englishmen had gone to Australia and won the Ashes 2-0.
"That the Australians acquitted themselves so well was due to the intelligent work done earlier by their new selectors, R N Harvey, S J E Loxton and P L Ridings," said the Almanack. "In their wisdom they decided to give youth a chance and many people were almost dumbfounded when the chosen seventeen excluded W M Lawry, I R Redpath and G D McKenzie. Only seven of the seventeen who toured England in 1968 were retained, Ian Chappell, Doug Walters, Paul Sheahan, John Inverarity, John Gleeson, Ashley Mallett and Brian Taber."
Two of the newer faces, Keith Stackpole and Greg Chappell, topped the run charts for the series. Ian Chappell was third, with Ross Edwards, another new boy, in fourth. Australia drew 2-2. The Ashes weren't regained, but there were enough hints that the balance of power was about to change.
It was hard not to think of Hughes as Waugh spoke of 1989 - "There were a lot of young players like myself trying to make a name for ourselves." Over the course of his career, Waugh tinkered with his game several times. The impulsive strokeplayer of the earlier days gave way to the defiance and frill-free excellence seen at Sabina Park (1995) and Old Trafford.
With Hughes, the tweaks seem to take him one step forward and several steps back. You rarely find a trace of the fearlessness that illuminated his twin hundreds against South Africa in 2009. You can pick out all sorts of flaws in his technique, but the fact remains that many of the world's leading run-getters have employed unorthodox methods.
In his wonderful biography of Harold Larwood, Duncan Hamilton writes of Sir Donald Bradman: "He was the architect of his own unconventional methods and always forcefully maintained that it was wrong to 'fog a boy's mind' with complicated instructions or analysis. Bradman found his own way; a certain something which worked for him."
Hughes seems to have lost his way. You can be certain, however, that the problem isn't technique, but the fog in his mind. He comes out to bat with the expression of a man about to face a firing squad. You only need to look at Steven Smith, another fairly limited player if you go by the manual, to see the contrast.
Again, Waugh's advice would benefit him greatly. Talking about the 1999 World Cup campaign, which started disastrously with defeats to New Zealand and Pakistan, he said: "The reason we weren't playing well in the first couple of matches was because we were too worried about the result. We forgot to enjoy what we were doing."
Hughes needs to find that enjoyment, the enthusiasm and sheer joy that were such a part of the hundreds he made at Kingsmead four years ago. And those that sit in judgment, whether that's the selectors or the media, could use a little patience. Waugh's stellar career is the ultimate testament to the value of keeping faith.