To prevail this week at the place known simply as "The G", England must manage one thing above all. It is also the one thing they might have expected not to have to do a month ago. They have to find a way to dismiss Mike Hussey.
Australia's No 5 batsman has tackled this Ashes series with a pre-eminence that suggests his sobriquet should be something like "Mr Cricket". Which, of course, it is, but never in a belated but auspicious international career has he quite lived up to its billing.
Hussey has scored 517 runs in this series at an average of 103.50, with a lowest score of 52 and a highest of 195. He has become the first person to reach a score of 50 or above in six successive Ashes innings. England are tired of the sight of him and Australia are probably slightly worried that he is carrying the burden of their batting.
"I don't think I've seen him play this way, ever," said his captain, Ricky Ponting yesterday. "He maintained some really high standards for his first three years but Justin Langer, our batting coach, said the other day he couldn't remember him ever playing this well."
This sequence of scores – 195, 93, 52, 61 and 116, preceded by 121 in the second innings at The Oval last year – follows a period when Hussey's career looked washed up. He had gone 13 innings without a hundred, his luck had disappeared with the runs and he was looking all of his 35 years at the crease.
A less than encouraging start to the Sheffield Shield season after an indifferent tour of India set tongues wagging furiously. Nobody can be quite sure because the selectors will never say, until perhaps they come to write their memoirs, but he might have been an innings from termination.
In the last Shield match before the squad for the first Test was announced, Hussey made an 18-ball duck. A future beckoned as an ex-Test cricketer. Between the first and the second innings, Hussey decided he had to take gamble. Instead of introspection and hesitation he had to take his future into his own hands. He decided that if he was to go out he would go out blazing. In the second innings Hussey made a quickfire fifty which became 118.
England then played into his hands at Brisbane where he was fed short balls which allowed him to unfurl his preferred back-foot strokes square of the wicket. Gradually, he has moved through the gears in every innings with a method close to perfection. This was no better demonstrated than by the fourth morning of the third Test at Perth when Australia were ahead but anxious not to give England a sniff at working their way back into the match.
For almost an hour, Hussey sat on his bat and defended. In the first 50 minutes of play he added only a handful of runs, surveying the scene, repelling what England had to throw at him. Then he cut loose so that by lunch Australia had moved from their overnight 119 for 3 to 211 for 4.
England do not seem to have much of a plan to deal with him, which is usually the case against batsmen in prime form. The fact that Hussey is coming hard at Graeme Swann, waiting to flay anything remotely short and dancing down the pitch to anything else, is becoming steadily more concerning.
"He kept persisting with the way he'd always prepared himself and he knew that it would finally turn for him," Ponting said. "It's amazing how a bit of time in the middle can turn things around. If you watch him now he's just not missing the middle of the bat. I've been watching him in the nets and it's seaming around but he's hitting everything in middle so he's in great touch and for someone like me who's the similar age to him I can take inspiration from that."
Ponting said Australia's "team performance could go through the roof" in Melbourne. His counterpart, Andrew Strauss, has to get out Hussey and is getting desperate. "I think we can look at different areas we can bowl at him," said Strauss. "He's due to nick one anyway." Sounds like a plan.
First Test (Brisbane): 195
Second Test (Adelaide): 93 and 52
Third Test (Perth): 61 and 116
Overall Test average: 52.83
Test average v England: 76.50
Year-by-year Test batting average
After the second Test against India this year, Hussey's overall average fell below 50 for the first time in his Test career. This was 'Mr Cricket's' 54th cap.
Hussey's Ashes 2010
Hussey has scored 150 runs off Swann in the first three Tests.
Hussey's series batting average: 103.40
Balls faced 896
Strike rate 57.70
Swann's Ashes 2010
Swann has dismissed Hussey twice.
Bowling average: 38.63
Overs bowled: 146.1
Strike rate: 79.70
Michael Hussey v Graeme Swann
Swann has dismissed Hussey four times in Test matches, a record held jointly with three other bowlers:
1. Caught, Collingwood (slip) for 27, Lord's, July 2009
2. Caught, Cook (short leg) for 121, The Oval, August 2009 (to clinch Ashes)
3. Caught, Collingwood (slip) for 93, Adelaide, December 2010
4. Caught, Prior (wicket-keeper) for 61, Perth, December 2010Reuse content