The superb batting of Mike Hussey rather than the left-arm swing-bowling of a reinvigorated Mitchell Johnson was the major difference between England and Australia in last week's third Test match, and getting Hussey out will be England's priority in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, according to Alastair Cook.
"We're not losing too much sleep over Mitchell Johnson," England's opening batsman told The Independent yesterday. "He's a good bowler and he's allowed to bowl well, as he did at Perth. But there have been plenty of other times in the past – at Lord's, at Brisbane – when we've dominated him. For me, Hussey's runs were the biggest difference between the two sides at Perth. He's been in exceptional form, and for Melbourne we've changed our plans for him a little bit."
Cook, with a brilliant double-century in the second innings at Brisbane, and a further century at Adelaide, could with an aggregate of 495 runs safely expect to be the leading scorer three Tests into this Ashes series. Yet he is pipped by Hussey, who has hit 517 runs so far, and whose second-innings knock of 116 in Perth exceeded those of all the England batsmen combined. Only with the help of nine extras did they limp to a second-innings total of 123 all out.
"People have to be realistic," said Cook, when asked how England's towering performance at the Adelaide Oval could be followed by such a feeble display at the Waca. "Everyone was saying before Perth that the Australians don't have particularly good bowlers, but that's not giving us due credit for how well we'd batted. Of course they have good bowlers. For us, our bigger challenge, to get to the next level, is consistency. Ultimately our aim is to be the best side in the world, and the massive thing we need to work on is consistency."
More immediately, the challenge is to beat an Australian team re-energised by the 267-run victory at Perth. "But if at the beginning of the tour you'd offered us 1-1 coming to Melbourne, we probably would have taken it," said Cook. "Perth has gone. We didn't play very well but there's nothing we can do about that now. It was important to discuss it, which we did a couple of hours afterwards back at the hotel, but now we move forward. The most important thing is how we react."
Cook, speaking from his hotel room in Melbourne and about to go for dinner with Matt Prior and Prior's wife Emily, to celebrate her birthday, insisted that a few cricket-free days since Perth had got the drubbing out of the collective system. "It's been an intense tour and it's been great to relax," he said.
That intensity has been evident not least in some fairly lively confrontations both on and off the field, but Cook denies that the sledging has been out of the ordinary. "Look, both sides are desperate to win. It's great for the game to see those clashes, because it shows how competitive we both are. It hasn't gone over the top. Personally I tend not to rise to the bait, but if you're opening the batting for England you expect some hassle, whichever country you're playing." A packed Melbourne Cricket Ground won't do anything to diminish the ferocity of competition, he added. "It's not my favourite ground. I love Adelaide, but to me the MCG doesn't feel like a proper cricket ground. Saying that, it's an amazing stadium, and any time you get a chance to play cricket in front of 100,000 people, you've got to enjoy it."