Hussey special gives Australia the upper hand
Michael Hussey played an innings of extraordinary application and character to underscore the fact that he is the Australian batsman of the hour, lifting his team from an overnight 8 for 239 to an improbable 355 with 122 runs, each worth its weight in the precious metal of your choice. In doing so, he deflated South African spirits and put his team on top till valiant resistance from AB de Villiers and Herschelle Gibbs helped South Africa reply with 2 for 169 by the time stumps were drawn on the second day of this Boxing Day Test match at Melbourne.
When Hussey walked out to bat on the second morning with Stuart MacGill, he would have had more faith in his partner than most. In late November, it was MacGill who kept one end up in a 93-run last wicket partnership that enabled Hussey to get to 133 not out against West Indies. Today though, one chopped boundary was all MacGill could add before having his stumps nailed by Makhaya Ntini. With Glenn McGrath for company, Hussey had to change plans.
The manner in which he batted, defending the first half of each over, shielding McGrath from the bowling, then changing gears as seamlessly as a Ferrari in a Formula 1 race to biff a boundary, and quickly dropping down a couple of gears again to steal a single and keep the strike was an object lesson in batting with the tail. True, he was dropped - Jacques Kallis floored a sitter at second slip off Shaun Pollock when Hussey was on 27 - but then again, Hussey's story has been all about taking the few chances afforded to him.
Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn. The way he shortened his backlift and played the horizontal bat shots - the chop past point or the short-arm jab on both sides of midwicket, will invite comparisons with Allan Border. The manner in which he stands tall and extends his hands to form the longest levers when cover-driving will remind people of Adam Gilchrist. But to cast him as a cross between two cricketers - albeit great ones - would be an injustice. At least after this innings, it must be conceded that Hussey has come into his own at the highest form of the game.
The South Africans certainly gave Hussey his due - Graeme Smith was quick to run up and shake Hussey's hand when he got to three figures. It's not clear if Andre Nel was quite as magnanimous. Halfway through the first session, Hussey took Nel to the cleaners, coming down the pitch and lofting the ball over wide mid-off for consecutive sixes. As if to prove that he was not partial to one side of the ground, Hussey then creamed Nicky Boje for two sixes over midwicket - the second with fielders on the ropes at long-on and midwicket. They might have brought the ropes in a touch at the new MCG, but it did not matter to Hussey, who was hitting the ball several rows back into the stands.
On 97, Hussey pulled out the reverse sweep for a couple, and soon after pulled a short one down to fine-leg to get to his third century in five Tests. Soon after, when he was dismissed for 122, dragging Ntini back onto his stumps, the partnership for the last wicket was worth an amazing 107, the highest for that wicket for Australia against South Africa. In all this, McGrath had played his part admirably, scoring 11 runs, but more importantly keeping the bowling out for 56 balls.
Staring at 355, AB de Villiers and Graeme Smith were given a thorough examination by McGrath. There was still a bit in the pitch, and McGrath was quick to extract lateral movement, beating the bat repeatedly with deliveries that seamed away. Repeatedly, his deliveries were too good to pick up the edge, but the pressure he applied paid off at the other end. Brett Lee got a fullish delivery to curl in late and hit Smith's back leg in front of middle-stump, earning a rare lbw from Asad Rauf, who has had a very good Test match so far.
Lee then turned up the heat on de Villiers, hitting him on the gloves more than once with pacy deliveries. But de Villiers stood his ground, occasionally flinching but never taking a backward step. He chopped and slashed over the slips cordon with gay abandon, infuriating Lee no end, and rattled up 61 before his strength proved his undoing. He shaped to cut a ball from McGrath that was too full for the shot and was trapped bang in front of the stumps. From 2 for 122, with shadows lengthening, Gibbs, who was uncharacteristically patient for 54, and Kallis shut shop, and took the score to 2 for 169 at stumps. Still ahead by 186, Australia are in a strong position, and they have Hussey to thank for that.
Stuart MacGill b Ntini 4 (9 for 248)
Beaten by pace and lost leg stump
Mike Hussey b Ntini 122 (10 for 355)
Dragged one back on trying to hoick over midwicket
Graeme Smith lbw b Lee 22 (1 for 36)
Rapped on the pad by a ball heading for leg stump
AB de Villiers lbw b McGrath 61 (2 for 122)
Misjudged a fullish one, shaped to cut and missed
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo