Nerves turn Mr Cricket into proper fidget

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The Independent Online

Mr Cricket has turned into Mr Anxious and, after another day when Australian batsmen made plenty of hay, England can at least be thankful for small mercies. There was a time when Mike Hussey was the last person bowlers wanted to see; now they put out the welcome mat.

Simon Katich, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Marcus North – all have filled their boots at Sophia Gardens and it will be no great surprise if young opener Phillip Hughes follows suit before he is much older. But Hussey, so calm and collected at the crease when England last came across him, has turned into a proper fidget who is fretting about where his next big Test match score might come from. Statistics are at the root of the problem, needless to say. Last week, playing against the fired up England Lions at Worcester, Hussey scored 150 and 62 not out, looking as good as he did during the Ashes series of 2006-7 when those of us on this side of the world last gave him our full attention.

But, although the bowlers running in hard at New Road included internationals Steve Harmison, Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan, it was not a Test match. And therein lies the problem, it seems. Having cracked it at the highest level by making eight centuries in his first 20 games wearing the Baggy Green, Hussey has managed only one more in another 17.5 appearances. And people are starting to talk.

In many ways, the 34-year-old from Morley, Western Australia, is a victim of his own early success. He waited a long time to reach the highest level – 11 years of playing first-class cricket for not only his state but also in England while doing sterling service for Durham, Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire – but then sprang from the blocks like a sprinter in 2005 making his debut against West Indies in Australia's first series after their Ashes humiliation. The runs stacked up so rapidly that Mr Cricket (so named because of his devotion to the game) had banked 1,000 of them in his first 166 days as a Test batsman, beating a record set in 2004 by Andrew Strauss. And, even more impressive to those who keep an eagle eye on these sort of things, his average hovered around 80 right through to the start of 2008.

In a game where an average of 40 is considered good, 80 inevitably invites comparisons with Don Bradman. But there is only one way to go from there, really, and Hussey has now been on a downer for 18 months with the fag end of last year and the early part of this one proving tough. When Australia were beaten at home by South Africa, Hussey supplied only 10 runs during the defeats in Perth and Melbourne. And even though Ricky Ponting's team gained revenge in the return series during February and March, the team's No 4 managed a decidedly modest total of 132 runs from six knocks. That unproductive sequence lowered Mr Cricket's Test average to 55.29. Now, following yesterday's decision to drive without much conviction against a ball from Jimmy Anderson that could have been left alone, it is down to 54.35. And one senses that, until Hussey relaxes a little the current trend could continue.

It was all so different in the 2006-7 Ashes series, of course. England supporters feared the worst when they saw Hussey safely established in Australia's middle order, and their concern was well founded. The man who made run-scoring in county cricket look as easy as shelling peas passed 50 in his first five Test innings against Andrew Flintoff's touring side, remaining unbeaten on two occasions and converting one of those knocks into a century.

Hussey has far too much talent to keep falling away. But the trouble about getting stuck in a rut is that, often, the harder you struggle the deeper you sink.