The most under-rated player in the world
One of the really interesting things about the Australian team right now is the standing of Michael Hussey. The man has played eighteen Tests: he is about to cross the threshold that's normally used to benchmark player performances, which is twenty Tests. And as we know, he has a batting average in the mid-80s. Allowing for Australian dominance, average inflation, wretched bowling attacks, making, in short, every deduction that a petty Indian fan might make to cut an Australian champion down to size, you're still left with figures that lift him so far above Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Kumar Sangakkara that you'd think cricket writers would be falling over themselves to crown him the Badshah of Batsmanship.
Not a bit of it. A few weeks ago, during Sri Lanka’s tour of Australia, Ian Chappell went on at great and carping length on how shocked he was that Hussey hadn't put his hand up to open for Australia when Justin Langer retired and how Hussey had missed a huge opportunity because Phil Jaques had made that position his own. I don't know about Chappell but if India had a player averaging 60 in the middle order, I'd have picketed the BCCI offices to uphold his right not to open. Even allowing for the fact that Hussey has opened the innings at the first-class level, I still can't follow why you'd want to mess with someone who has been delivering numbers like 86.18 per innings.
It's not just Chappell: listening to Channel 9's commentators, it's hard not to get the feeling that they're puzzled, even vaguely embarrassed by his statistics. Hussey himself is endearingly modest about his achievement. Talking to an Australian newspaper he said:
"I must admit I'm surprised and shocked by my numbers but it's early in my Test career. I'd love to retire with an average of 60 but it's in the nature of the game that it all levels out. I know deep down it's going to come down to a more realistic region as my Test career continues."
There are lots of bowlers round the world, not least the ones in the Indian touring party, who must be praying Hussey's right, but his self-deprecation doesn't explain why he has been so mutedly acclaimed. Just to put his achievement in perspective, after eighteen Test matches, Tendulkar's average was a fraction above 38, Dravid's was just under 50 and Brian Lara was a hair over 55.
One reason for the lack of full-throated acclamation might be a certain embarrassment on the part of the Australian cricket establishment that it waited till Hussey had amassed 15,313 first-class runs before picking him for Australia. I know that subcontinental selectors sometimes pick players before they're ready for the rigours of international cricket (Parthiv Patel is the classic example) but making someone serve a 15,000-run, eleven-year, apprenticeship seems excessive. Perhaps Australia's cricket mandarins got the timing of Hussey's elevation desperately wrong and are reluctant to admit to it.
Or perhaps Hussey's case illustrates a larger problem with cricket appreciation: the way in which a ruling aesthetic obscures the achievement of players whose methods don't fit its criteria. I haven't watched Hussey often enough to be able to confidently characterise his style, but the little I've seen suggests soundness and efficiency rather than grace, elegance, in-your-face aggression or unearthly stroke-play. As a left-handed batsman, Hussey is the Anti-Lara. There's no flourish, little follow-through and he doesn't fill you with the excitement of watching a great but fallible talent. If I were Australian, watching him would fill me with tranquility and confidence and calm, the sense that Hussey was at the wicket and all was right with the world.
Players like Tendulkar and Lara have the reputations they do partly because they play extraordinary shots, strokes that the averagely good player would find hard to carry off. Lara's bizarrely flamboyant driving where the bat describes a complete circle takes your breath away because it's hard to imagine how, in the course of that magnificent revolving-door flourish, he manages to hit the ball in the middle of the bat. Conversely, Tendulkar is venerated by his peers, especially bowlers, because it's hard to fathom how he generates such power with that curiously abbreviated cover drive, played on the up, off the backfoot.
But what if, like Hussey, you scored at a decent rate (his strike rate is over 53, considerably quicker than Dravid or Laxman), hit centuries and fifties regularly and in general were so massively consistent that you piled up this mountainous average, all the while playing in a matter-of-fact way? Wouldn't spectators and pundits have to re-work the aesthetic that rules our appreciation of batsmanship? If Everyman's results turn out to be consistently and conspicuously better than those achieved by aesthetically certified Genius, wouldn't we have to redefine what it means to be 'great' or a 'genius'? If Vijay Singh found a way of beating Tiger Woods regularly and filling his cabinets with winner's trophies from the majors, how long would it be before golf pros began teaching Vijay Singh's way with the driver? Ilie Nastase was commonly acknowledged to be a genius, but Bjorn Borg defined genius out of the equation by demonstrating year after year that topspin and incredible fitness married to the best temperament in tennis added up to greatness.
Now Hussey's career may or may not turn out to be Bradmanesque, but he's already done enough for us to acknowledge that he is as good as the best in the contemporary game; very likely better. So it's baffling that someone as ordinarily good as Michael Clarke seems to evoke more enthusiasm amongst Australian pundits than the Olympian figure of Hussey. Clarke is widely touted as Ponting's heir apparent (incredibly, Clarke seems to think so too) and the Australian press is eloquent about his precocity as a player, his litheness in the field and his brilliance as a batsman.
This is a useful example of the ruling aesthetic trumping achievement. There's little a commentator likes better than a batsman 'using his feet' and Clarke is Twinkletoes himself. Pundits might be better occupied looking at the results of his shimmying. He has a Test average of 46. He has played twenty-nine Tests and after his eighteenth, his average was around 38. It's interesting that Clarke was picked for Australia when he was 23 in 2003 while Hussey had to wait till 2005 by which time he was 30. The only half-reasonable explanation for this is that Hussey in his first-class career was an opening batsman and got his 'break' in Test cricket in that role whereas Clarke's always been a middle-order batsman. It's an unsatisfactory explanation simply because while there's a case to be made against elevating a middle-order batsman to open the innings (because he's unused to starting his innings against the new ball etc.) there can be no rational argument against using a hugely prolific opening batsman in a middle-order role.
The fact is that Hussey would have played for Australia earlier if he'd been a blond, bubbling, all-dancing middle-order batsman. This Inconvenient Truth (to borrow Gore's ponderous capitals) is absurd, but undeniable. The folly of not selecting him earlier becomes more apparent with every innings he plays: this is Hussey's highest average since his fourth test. For the sceptic who thinks it's bound to be downhill from here on, it's worth pointing out that Hussey's average at the end of his tenth Test was in the lowly upper sixties. Through the last eight Tests his average has been rising! I suspect that selectors and pundits who thought that Clarke was Australian cricket's golden future are finding it hard to admit that they nearly overlooked the greatest batsman of Ponting's generation.
Speaking as an Indian, I wish they had.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi