Whither Michael Hussey?
Australia will face a multitude of tough and unpalatable questions in the wake of their turgid batting display at The Oval, but none more immediately confronting than the form issues of Michael Hussey. A timid duck has rendered Hussey's position in the Australian middle order close to untenable, and there must now be grave doubts among Andrew Hilditch's selection panel as to whether he can be nursed through another series.
Certainly, Hussey was not alone in failing against a driven and disciplined England attack at The Oval on Friday, but while others have solid recent records to fall back on, the 34-year-old has no such wiggle room. In what is fast becoming a recurring theme, his dismissal to Stuart Broad for a third ball duck was the product of uncertainty around his off-stump, this time manifesting in a late attempt to play an inswinging delivery that cannoned into his front pad.
Australia have lost six Test veterans through natural attrition over the past few years, and Hilditch's panel could be forgiven for balking at the prospect of forcing another out the door. In a period of major transition, Hussey and Ricky Ponting were viewed as the men around whom selectors could fashion a new-look batting line-up. Two years on, that view has changed markedly.
Hussey's duck at The Oval was his sixth since the beginning of the last Australian summer, and eleventh total of 10-or-below in his past 13 matches. In that time, he has scored 477 runs at 22.71 and continued a century-less streak that now stands at 28 innings. Hussey's Ashes campaign has charted a similar course, with 155 runs at 22.15 - 115 of which were scored in innings at Lord's and Edgbaston - rendering him the worst performed of Australia's top-seven batsmen in England.
When the end approaches, great batsmen rarely lose all their faculties at once. Their slides are generally more subtle, insidious affairs, with signs of decline punctuated by the occasional throw-back performance. Such has been the pattern for Hussey over the past 10 months. Each of his four half-centuries have raised hope that the drought had finally broken, only for tension and uncertainty to return, as evidenced by his dismissals shouldering arms at Lord's and Edgbaston. Consistency has been conspicuously absent; the pressure ever-intensifying.
Should Australia lose this match - and a 172-run first innings deficit is giving every reason to believe they will - Ponting's men will be relegated to fourth-place on the ICC Test ladder. Whether they are deserving of such an exaggerated slide is open for debate, but an inquisition will nevertheless be launched by an Australian public unfamiliar with the concept of a losing cricket team.
Australia's 2005 Ashes defeat proved the catalyst for change, and 2009 may yet follow a similar script. Clarke is undoubtedly equipped to handle a promotion from No. 5 to No. 4 in the batting order, and home Test series against the eighth-ranked West Indians and sixth-ranked Pakistanis might be viewed as an opportune time to blood a younger batsman. Callum Ferguson will emerge as a strong contender, although a David for Michael Hussey swap - similar to the Waugh exchange of 1991 - cannot be discounted.
It would, of course, be a great injustice to apportion all blame for Australia's dramatic collapse at The Oval to Hussey. Any sequence involving a team losing ten wickets for 87 runs suggests a multitude of sins committed by numerous culprits, and Ponting, Clarke and Brad Haddin are among those who would dearly love the opportunity to replay their innings. But whereas they have scored heavily in recent Australian campaigns, Hussey has not. And the patience of the public, if not the selectors, is wearing thin.
Like Matthew Hayden four years ago, Hussey has one more innings at The Oval to convince critics, and perhaps himself, that he is the man to lead Australia into the next summer. Hayden's scratchy century in 2005 kick-started the most prolific 18 months of his career. Can Hussey emulate those feats? All will be revealed this weekend.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo