By SB Tang
I was there on Michael Hussey’s final day as a Test cricketer before he announced his retirement.
As the Australian team walked off the MCG in the mid-afternoon light, having completed an innings victory over Sri Lanka inside three days and clinched the three Test series with a match to spare, Hussey gave an appreciative 360 degree wave to the 30,803 strong crowd. Whereas the rest of his teammates were the acme of unfussed professionalism, casually strolling off the field like battlefield surgeons having completed a routine operation, Hussey bounced around like an eight-year-old on his way to Pancake Parlour with his folks, grinning from ear to flappy ear. “Typical Huss,” I thought to myself at the time, “37 years young and as bouncy and hyper-enthusiastic as ever.”
The possibility that he would announce his retirement from international cricket the very next day didn’t even occur to me. With the benefit of hindsight though, it should have. Hussey is, as Gideon Haigh eloquently testified, a fundamentally decent human being. Hussey and his wife have four young children aged between six months and eight years old. Their youngest child, Oscar, was born three months early in mid-2012 and Hussey skipped Australia’s one-day tour of England and Ireland in June–July 2012 to be with his family. With Australia scheduled for over four months on the road in 2013, including lengthy tours of India and England, his decision to retire to spend more time with his young family is, in retrospect, a no-brainer.
In recent times, Hussey has taken to wearing fire-engine-red-toed cricket shoes in the field. It was an apt choice of footwear — red-toed shoes aren’t exactly common place on or off the cricket field these days, but they were the kind of shoes worn by the characters in TV shows like Leave It to Beaver and Happy Days, those paeans to the 1950s suburban idyll. One could easily imagine Hussey, with his neat short-back-and-sides haircut and impeccable manners, turning up on the Cunninghams’ doorstep, dressed in a suit and bow tie, to earnestly ask Mr Cunningham for permission to invite his daughter Joanie to the movies.
Of course, the 1950s suburban idyll depicted in those TV shows probably never existed for real. But the America experienced and written about by John Steinbeck most certainly did. In November 1958, Steinbeck received a letter from his teenage son, Thom, who was at boarding school, explaining that he’d fallen in love with a girl named Susan. Steinbeck replied to his son on the same day. The concluding paragraph of his letter reads: “And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
Wiser words were never written. Steinbeck was writing of romantic love but his words are equally true of platonic love and, indeed, the great mystery that is the human condition.
Steinbeck’s words are certainly true of Michael Hussey, a good man and an outstanding international cricketer who so very nearly got away from the Australian cricket team, but ultimately didn’t, once he learned that “the main thing is not to hurry.”
Thirteen years ago, Michael Hussey was a young man in a hurry. He was 24 years old, opening the batting for his native Western Australia, and about to be awarded his first national contract in May 2000 — a just reward for his longstanding consistency, having passed 900 first-class runs in each of the preceding five seasons for Western Australia. Meanwhile, Australia’s Test opening partnership was in a state of flux. The selectors had been searching in vain for a new partner for Michael Slater ever since Mark Taylor retired in early 1999. They had just dumped their first pick to fill the vacancy, Greg Blewett, in late March 2000, and his replacement, Matthew Hayden had yet to establish himself in the team. Hussey, it seemed, was a twinged hamstring or a form blip away from achieving his “ultimate goal, that I have had since I was a little boy, of getting the baggy green cap and playing in a Test match.”
But his Sheffield Shield form, heretofore so consistent, chose that precise moment to desert him. It would not return for four Australian summers. From the 2000–01 to the 2002–03 season, Hussey’s Australian first-class season average failed to touch 40. This prolonged form slump culminated in the ignominy of being dropped, in early March 2003, from the Western Australia side for a Shield match against Victoria. Western Australia’s Chairman of Selectors, Wayne Hill, said ominously: “We have decided to look at the potential of some of the state’s developing young players. Western Australian cricket is losing games and we have to look at ways to rectify that.” Hussey was about to turn 28 and his Shield career was on the brink of early termination.
So much for his dream of batting for Australia in a Test match.
During this dark time, Hussey conducted himself with the quiet, earnest dignity of a hero from one of Steinbeck’s novels. After another batting failure in the early 2000s against Queensland, the then dominant force in Shield cricket, Hussey sat down outside the Western Australia dressing room and composed a heartfelt letter to Steve Waugh, asking “How do I become more ‘mentally tough’?” Hussey never sent the letter. He didn’t need to — as he wrote out his questions, he came to realise what the answers were.
In early November 2005, just 32 months after being dropped from Western Australia’s Shield XI, Hussey strode out to open the batting for Australia at the Gabba in a Test match against the West Indies.
That was the first time Hussey resurrected himself from the dead, but it wouldn’t be the last.
At the press conference announcing his international retirement, Hussey said: “I really want to be remembered as a team man.” In one of life’s rare virtuous ironies, it was this selfless commitment to the team cause for Western Australia which, in a somewhat unconventional and roundabout fashion, led to his first resurrection and finally won him individual selection for Australia in the mid-2000s.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, Western Australia boasted Australia’s first and second-choice one-day international opening batsmen-keepers — Adam Gilchrist and Ryan Campbell — as well as top-order batsmen such as Justin Langer, Murray Goodwin, Damien Martyn and Simon Katich. So Hussey, the technically solid, straight-batted opening batsman, dropped down Western Australia’s limited overs batting order and converted himself into a fast-scoring, lower-middle-order limited overs finisher capable of clearing the ropes at will. It was an incredible metamorphosis — akin to Alastair Cook transforming himself overnight into Eoin Morgan, or Mark Taylor waking up one morning as Michael Bevan. And about as plausible as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.
Ultimately, it was this admirable willingness to adapt, to work relentlessly to change his own individual game for the benefit of the team, which paved Hussey’s path to international cricket. When, in February 2004, the Australian selectors went looking for a middle-order one-day finisher to replace the axed Michael Bevan, it was to Hussey that they turned. Hussey, nearly 29 and having waited a decade to play for his country, seized the opportunity like a man who knew that it would likely be his first and last. After playing his 15th one-day international on 12 July 2005 against England at the Oval, his batting average stood at 129 and his strike rate 95.55. So successfully did Hussey complete his metamorphosis in coloured clothing that this once moderately stodgy opening bat finished his T20 international career with a strike rate of 136.29 — 3.4 higher than that of England’s present day Irishman-cum-England-limited-overs finisher extraordinaire Eoin Morgan.
By mid-2005, people began clamouring for Hussey’s inclusion in the Test XI for the forthcoming Ashes series, citing his impressive one-day international and first-class records. It was at around this time that a certain myth surrounding Hussey arose. Let us call it: the Myth of Hussey’s Shield Form. According to this myth, Hussey had been banging on the door to Test selection for well over a decade by, season after season, consistently scoring mountains of first-class runs for Western Australia. This simply wasn’t true — although Hussey’s most recent Australian first-class season, 2004–05, had been outstanding (he averaged 60.78 with three centuries in nine matches), in the four Australian summers prior to that, his season average had only once touched 40.
Nonetheless, Hussey’s career first-class average when one Cricinfo-ed him was in the suitably impressive region of 50. The reason for this can be summed up in two words: county cricket. Since 2001, Hussey had been spending his Australian winters in England playing county cricket where he scored first-class runs in droves. From 2001 to 2005, Hussey’s English first-class season averages read: 79.03, 68.66, 89.31, 36.83, and 76.71. (Like his younger brother David after him, Michael Hussey’s first-class average in England dwarfed his first-class average in Australia. Unlike David, Michael was able to replicate his English domestic form on the international stage.)
Michael Hussey ended up playing no part in the 2005 Ashes defeat — Australia’s first in more than 18 years. His chance to wear the baggy green came soon enough, in the 2005–06 Australian summer, as first Justin Langer got injured and then a young Michael Clarke got dropped for the first and thus far only time in his Test career.
The empirical truth is that Hussey’s route into Test cricket was an unconventional one, coming not via a consistent flood of Shield runs, but via his one-day international performances and a first-class record heavily inflated by his superhuman feats in county cricket. But, it is no less meritorious for it. After all, no-one particularly cares how a player gets into the Australian Test XI, as long as he performs once he’s in it. And perform Hussey did. Twenty-one Tests into his career in January 2008, he’d scored 2166 Test runs at an average of 80.22 with eight centuries and eight fifties. Statistically, the only batsman in Test history he could be compared with was Bradman.
But, in his next 33 Tests, Hussey averaged a potentially terminal 34.80. Australian Test batsmen, especially those hailing from Victoria (see, for example, Dean Jones, Brad Hodge and Bill Lawry), have been dropped for far less pronounced form slumps. In early November 2010, on the eve of the 2010–11 Ashes series, Hussey’s career Test average reached its nadir of (a still impressive) 49.75. But Hussey was by then 35 years of age and, along with Simon Katich and Ricky Ponting, one of three mid-30-somethings in the Australian batting line-up. Many, myself included, believed that it was time for Hussey to make way for new blood. He’d already resurrected himself once in his late 20s. Surely, he couldn’t do it again in his mid-30s.
He did it again.
In the first Ashes Test at the Gabba, Hussey, for the second time in his professional career, clambered out of his coffin whilst most of us were busy shovelling dirt onto it by smoking a scintillating 195 off 330 balls.
Thus began the final act of his three-act Test career where, in 25 Tests, he scored 2155 runs at an average of 55.25, with eight hundreds and eight fifties. He finished his Test career with a batting chart which resembled the business cycle diagram shown in macroeconomics 101 classes the world over: boom, followed by trough, followed by sustainable expansion. If only real world macroeconomics was that simple.
“Nothing good gets away”, wrote Steinbeck and that is certainly true of Michael Hussey, a real life Steinbeckian hero if there ever was one — a good man who almost got away from Australian cricket, but didn’t, because he never stopped working, never stopped improving and never stopped believing in himself. Even when the rest of us did (twice).
He was never as naturally talented as some of his contemporaries, but there was no-one who worked harder. He was a consummate overachiever in the truest, noblest sense. That is the measure of the man.
He will be missed.