Can Hussey shrug South African slump?
Michael Hussey is entering his 19th season of first-class cricket. In all that time, he has not faced a better attack than the South Africa group led by Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. Since Steyn and Morkel arrived on the scene, Hussey has played eight Tests against South Africa for a top score of 50. Next week, he will walk out on to the Gabba and attempt to rectify that record with only one Sheffield Shield match behind him. He'd better hope it doesn't rain in Melbourne over the next four days.
Hussey is the first to admit that his preparation, which virtually begins and concludes with a Shield match against Victoria starting on Thursday, has been far from ideal. Even in the lead-up to the disastrous 2010-11 Ashes, a series that led to the Argus review and serious criticisms of Australia's preparation, he had played two Shield games before the first Test. Now, he hasn't played a first-class match since April, his longest such lay-off in five years.
It's not that he hasn't been playing cricket - there was the limited-overs tour of the UAE in August and September, followed by the World Twenty20 and the Champions League T20 - it's just that his bat hasn't been collecting red cherries. The best he has managed were some net sessions with a red ball facing his Chennai Super Kings team-mate Ben Hilfenhaus over the past few weeks in South Africa.
"It's not perfect. You'd definitely prefer at least a couple [of Shield games]," Hussey said. "But that's the way the schedule is and there's nothing I can do about it ... But I must admit my training while I was over in South Africa was trying to get back into Test match cricket mode. I was facing Ben Hilfenhaus with red balls over there. I have done a fair bit of work in the lead-up to this Shield game.
"This Shield game is very important as well. I'd prefer to have more first-class games but having said that I find the transition from Twenty20 into the longer form a lot easier than the other way around. I've always struggled going from a Test match into a T20 game. I've found that's taken me a lot longer. Hopefully I can make the adjustment relatively quickly."
Hussey is not the only batsman in Australia's Test side facing the same problem. None of Hussey, David Warner and Shane Watson have played first-class cricket since the Caribbean Test tour in April, and although they were all at the Champions League, Watson was sent home early to work on his Test preparation. At least Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Ed Cowan have been at home playing Shield cricket.
Hussey can ill afford to head to the Gabba without red-ball runs to his name. Over the past four years, Australia and South Africa have delivered eight of the most magnificent Tests, but Hussey's contributions have been slim. Steyn and Morkel have each dismissed him five times, and although Hussey might be able to target the legspinner Imran Tahir, he will have to find a way to counteract the swing and bounce of South Africa's quicks.
"It's probably the best attack that I've faced," Hussey said. "They complement each other quite well. They're all different bowlers. Steyn is a bit shorter, extreme pace but can swing the ball away from the right hander. Morkel gets that awkward bounce so he's very different. He's a bit wider of the crease and bowls very well to the left handers in particular.
"Philander is extremely disciplined, lands the ball on the seam and does a little bit either way. They're well backed up by Kallis, who has done a fantastic job over a long time, and they've got a very good spinner as well. They're a very well rounded attack. They complement each other very well and we're going to have to play extremely well to get on top of them."
But Hussey knows that lying awake at night worrying about the South Africans won't help. Over the years, Hussey has admitted to sometimes over-thinking things and he has learnt that a clouded mind is his enemy. He knows that at 37, his next extended lean patch could be career-ending - though only if a younger batsman emerges from Shield cricket with better credentials, which for the time being is not happening. But he refuses to let himself become anxious over a record of 277 runs at 18.46 in his past eight Tests against South Africa.
"There's no point [worrying]," Hussey said. "I have tried doing that before, against England. I'd had a mediocre season against England and I was getting all worried about it, and then ended up performing a lot better against them next time. There's no point in worrying or stressing about anything that's happened in the past, because there's enough things to worry and stress about when you're out in the middle in a Test match anyway.
"The Test matches we've played against South Africa in South Africa have been extremely difficult for batting. I think back to the Cape Town game when we were bowled out for 40-odd, Michael Clarke's innings of 150 was one of the best innings I've ever seen, because the pitch was doing an extraordinary amount and no other batsman looked comfortable at all. I'm expecting the pitches in Australia to be very good, very true, and if you can get in and get through that initial period, there's no reason why a few of the guys can't go on and get big scores."
The question is whether Hussey is one of those guys. At least he knows he has the support of the national selector John Inverarity.
"Last year when [the selection panel] were contemplating the first Test team against India at the Boxing Day Test, we were discussing Ben Hilfenhaus, and a couple amongst us said Ben Hilfenhaus' record at the MCG is not at all good," Inverarity said this week. "Then one amongst us said 'well he's due to take wickets' and he got five. So I would say against the South Africans, Michael Hussey who is a very fine batsman, is due to make some runs."
The Australians just hope that in a month's time he's not overdue.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here