Three men, maybe more, were playing for their careers yesterday. It was, as they like to say hereabouts, shootout day for the Australian cricket team. And by its end the old gunslinger had gone toe to toe with the new kids who wanted his place and stared them down.
Mike Hussey could not be sure that it was enough to run them out of town but he could do no more. In Melbourne, at one of the biggest grounds in the world, its cavernous stands empty, he went to the crease to play for his life in international cricket. Three hours later he returned having scored 118 for Western Australia against Victoria.
Here, Usman Khawaja and Callum Ferguson, who were chosen in the extended 17-man Australia squad for the first Test of the Ashes series in Brisbane next week, were vying with each other for Hussey's place. Like the 35-year-old Hussey they had failed in the first innings and now in Hobart they were going out to bat against England once more.
Their time may come in any case but it may not. Sport is like that. Seize the moment or wait for someone else to do it. Hussey was already making serene progress by the time Khawaja made his way to the wicket, Australia A one down. He might not have known what the old man was doing on the mainland but he knew that he needed runs at this moment.
Tim Bresnan, of England, had just removed Australia A's opener Ed Cowan who had bottom-edged a pull on to his stumps. He ran in against Khawaja, of whom many good judges have spoken so highly and who had started this Australian season so brightly. The ball was pitched on a good length, held its own and took the edge to wicketkeeper, Matt Prior. If Khawaja's dreams were not over they were not exactly vibrant with life either after scores of 13 and 0.
Enter Ferguson, another young pretender who had started the Sheffield Shield season well and almost forced the selectors' hands. If he could get runs as well as Hussey then they might be forced to go with the younger man. There was one boundary, some surveying of the scene, the avoidance of playing too many shots as he has been prone to do. But after barely half an hour, he played forward to Bresnan, the ball kept low and crashed into his stumps. Seven and 10 in the match, also not enough.
It has been a riveting few days' cricket in this country, set up by selectors who were prepared to leave several places open. Hussey's was one, Marcus North's another, the spin bowling place in the possession of Nathan Hauritz yet another. But there was hardly any good news for them at all.
North made 22 not out yesterday in Melbourne, "neither nowt nor summat" as they say in Yorkshire. Indeed, only Mitchell Johnson had provided a glimmer of light. The fast bowler made a first-innings hundred for Western Australia, which he embellished with 5 for 35. "If I can keep doing that... look out the Poms," Johnson declared bullishly afterwards.
If anything, the selectors might have preferred Hussey to fail and one of the others to come off. Hussey has been raging against the dying of the light for months. There has to come a time when his powers have waned too far. Why not now?
"I'd be disappointed if I was left out of the squad now," said Hussey. "It was just meant to be my day today so I'm very thankful I could get a big score. Although it has been hard to shy away from it [Ashes pressure] I've been trying to not listen to too much of that.
"I haven't read a hell of a lot or listened to much criticism. I know I play my best when I'm clear in my mind so that's what I've been trying to do. I haven't really concentrated on them [Khawaja and Ferguson] at all... It's funny, you talk about lean spots, they've both been playing really well and it's a hard game, you make one mistake and you're gone."
England were well aware of all this but have insisted, rather unsportingly for those trying to stoke Ashes confrontations, on playing the deadest of bats and have simply gone about their business. As they have done for the three weeks of this tour so far, they did so with unfussy professionalism.
There were no alarms, panics or scares. England extended their overnight lead here, grinding it out in the morning, essaying something much more positive later on. Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood took their partnership to 240 from 378 balls. Collingwood failed narrowly to make a hundred for the second successive match, Bell who was again sublime, fell eight short of a double.
The tail all got a move on and only Kevin Pietersen failed to reach double figures in England's innings. There was some encouragement for the home side, though it was of the straw-clutching sort, that the leg-spinner, Steve Smith, having been treated disdainfully the previous day, responded and picked up the last two wickets.
Starting their second innings with a deficit of 293 runs, Australia A began solidly before Bresnan struck three times in an accurate spell to put his nose in front in the second-string pecking order. Phil Hughes, the former wonder boy who was overlooked in Australia's packed squad, which was a pretty difficult trick to pull off, made a half-century as Australia A reached 128 for 3. Dropped once at slip off the unfortunate Monty Panesar, who has lost the knack of taking wickets, it was still a robust response.
Tour match: Bellerive Oval (Third day of four) Australia A trail England by 165 runs with seven second-innings wickets remaining
England won toss
Australia A First Innings 230 (S N J O'Keefe 66, S P D Smith 59, C T Tremlett 4-54, A Shahzad 3-57)
England First Innings
Overnight 335-5 (A N Cook 60, I J L Trott 41)
Runs 6s 4s Bls
P D Collingwood c Paine b McKay 89;1;10;177
I R Bell c Cowan b Smith 192;1;22;275
†M J Prior c Hughes b Smith 27;0;5;31
T T Bresnan lbw b O'Keefe 36;0;4;72
A Shahzad not out 18;1;1;25
C T Tremlett c McKay b O'Keefe 16;0;3;18
Extras (lb 1, w 7, nb 8);16
Total (141 overs);523
Fall: 1-20, 2-37, 3-124, 4-127, 5-137, 6-377, 7-407, 8-487, 9-493, 10-523.
Bowling: M A Cameron 28-3-108-2, P R George 33-6-135-0, C J McKay 29-8-73-2, S N J O'Keefe 24-3-88-4, S P D Smith 27-3-118-2.
Australia A Second Innings
Runs 6s 4s Bls
E J M Cowan b Bresnan 33;0;3;76
P J Hughes not out 58;0;8;126
U T Khawaja c Prior b Bresnan 0;0;0;1
C J Ferguson b Bresnan 10;0;1;22
*C L White not out 22;0;3;39
Extras (lb 5);5
Total (3 wkts, 44 overs);128
Fall: 1-66, 2-66, 3-84.
To bat: †T D Paine, S P D Smith, S N J O'Keefe, C J McKay, M A Cameron, P R George.
Bowling: C T Tremlett 12-4-26-0, A Shahzad 10-1-45-0, M S Panesar 13-2-27-0, T T Bresnan 9-2-25-3.
Umpires: S D Fry & P R Reiffel.
Days to The Ashes
5 The number of Tests England lost by in their last Ashes series Down Under in 2006-07, when they were led by Andrew Flintoff. It was only the second time England had been whitewashed in an Ashes series – the previous occasion being in 1920-21, when Johnny Douglas captained the side.Reuse content