Essays, reflections and more

Mr Backyard Cricket

A hunk of wood for a bat, stones for balls, his father's awkward action to face: Michael Hussey's initiation to cricket wasn't exactly indicative of what was to come

Steve Cannane

July 24, 2009

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Michael Hussey and David Hussey bat together for the first time at international level, West Indies v Australia, 5th ODI, St Kitts, July 6, 2008
Run like it's Mullaloo: The Hussey brothers, fierce rivals in their yard, batting together for Australia for the first time, against West Indies in St Kitts in 2008 © AFP
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News : Ted Hussey dies aged 73
Players/Officials: Michael Hussey | David Hussey
Teams: Australia

When Mike Hussey first got a taste for cricket, the game was undergoing a revolution. World Series Cricket was changing the way cricket was played, and what players were paid. Test cricket, once dominated by bank tellers, teachers and cigarette salesmen, became a professional sport. One-day cricket with its frenetic hitting, coloured clothes and day-night games found a market for fans lacking the time or patience for five-day cricket.

TV coverage, previously ponderous and one-dimensional, became a slick multi-camera operation. Equipment changed too: helmets protected batsmen from short-pitched bowling, padding became more robust, and bats more hi-tech. Young boys emulated their heroes using Gray-Nicolls bats with scoops carved in the backs. Not that everything new was embraced. Dennis Lillee became an instant expert in the market for scrap metal when sales of his aluminium bat hit freefall.

In the midst of all this progress, Mike Hussey's cricket remained rooted in the Stone Age. While Australian batsmen were getting used to facing chin music produced by an unfriendly West Indian quartet, young Mike was having rocks thrown at him by his Dad. There was no cricket kit in the Hussey household, not even a tennis ball. Mike's first bat was a hunk of sawn-off wood; the "balls" were pieces of gravel bowled awkwardly by his father.

Ted Hussey was no fan of cricket. While working as a public-affairs manager at Australia Post, he was asked to play in the annual cricket game between the Planning Branch and the Building Branch. Ted was an accomplished sprinter and basketballer, but he had no desire to play any form of cricket. This was not good enough for the long-socked bureaucrats at Australia Post. "At that stage of the game, the threat at the Post Office was if you cut up rough or made a blunder you'd be sent to Wyndham," Hussey recalls. "The planning manager appeared at my door and said, you've got two choices son, you're playing cricket or you're going to Wyndham."

Ted decided he'd better get some practice in. Each player had to bowl at least one over, and in the blokey culture of an Australia Post cricket game, any sign of weakness was ripe for some workplace harassment. He handed his three-year-old son Mike a lump of wood and started bowling pieces of gravel at him. While his father's technique was rusty, Mike was a natural. "The eye was there," Ted remembers, "he could seem them clearly. I can still see him hitting them now."

While Mike's first hit was encouraging, Ted's first game was a disaster. He was out twice within two balls for a duck. The first time, being a social game, didn't count. He did take one wicket, the opposition's star batsman, caught on the boundary off a ball that bounced twice. His team mates were in hysterics. To top off the day, Ted Hussey was awarded a trophy for "turning up".

Humiliated, he drove home in a foul mood. "I thought to myself I will never ever play that bloody game again!" When he arrived home, Mike was waiting for his father, with the lump of wood in hand. His first words to his father as he got out of the car were: "Dad, will you play cricket with me?"

Soon the pieces of gravel were replaced by tennis balls and the hunk of wood was superseded by a homemade bat. Even Ted's double-bouncing slow balls became redundant. David, two years Mike's junior, became the cannon fodder for his brother's long innings in the backyard. Mike was already obsessed by cricket. That gave David the advantage he needed. He could always tell his older brother he wouldn't play unless he got to bat first.

These games were played with an intensity that was probably only matched in the Chappell and Waugh backyards. Younger sisters Kate and Gemma were too sensible to get involved. These were one-on-one grudge matches played to the death. "Dave was never out," Mike wrote in Mr Cricket. "If he nicked one to the keeper, he wouldn't walk. Even if he got clean bowled he refused to hand over the bat! It was then that the fights would start."

The Hussey boys would not have been in the running for any "spirit of cricket" awards, if such things existed back then. There was not only cheating going on in their backyard games, but regular punch-ups followed disputed decisions. The two boys used the pace they'd inherited from their father to chase each other around the backyard when dismissals weren't accepted. When things got really bad David would lock himself in the car and refuse to come out. "That's how so many of our games ended," Mike wrote. "Him in tears running away from me and me crying because I'd been hoodwinked again into bowling for ages and not getting to bat."

When Mike did eventually get a bat he had to work hard to make sure Dave didn't take his wicket. The Hussey pitch was a concrete driveway that swung round the back of the house into a carport. The bowler could make the ball deviate sharply by hitting the grooves in between the concrete slabs that were perfectly in line with middle stump. Mike knew he had to make the most of each innings and make sure he didn't get out. Otherwise Dave's reluctance to leave the wicket would condemn him to spending his afternoon bowling under the hot West Australian sun. In the backyard at Mullaloo, survival became the cornerstone of his batting.

Ted Hussey believes these early contests were critical to the development of his two boys and their individual styles that led them to representing Australia. "It was the competition between the two of them that developed their different types of game. All Dave wants to do is beat you and the mind is ticking over all the time of how the hell he's going to get you. That's what happened in the backyard. He wanted to beat Mike. The other fella [Mike] will stay there and stay there and he'll wait till you make a mistake."

When Mike first started playing organised cricket for Whitfords Cricket Club in the under 12s, there wasn't much power to his batting. Like Keith Miller, he was a small boy in his youth, and had to base his game around defence. Bob Mitchell, his first coach, taught him to concentrate on technique and survival. It was an attitude reinforced by his father, Ted. "Get your technique right and fight hard, I would always tell the two boys, and the rest will follow."

For a non-cricketer, Ted Hussey had a huge influence on the cricket careers of his sons. He applied what he learned from athletics to cricket. By the time they turned four, he'd taught his boys how to run with the correct posture. Balance and footwork is critical when it comes to batting. As Ted puts it, "If you run a lot, you will find that your feet will start to work on the crease."

 
 
These games were played with an intensity that was probably only matched in the Chappell and Waugh backyards. Younger sisters Kate and Gemma were too sensible to get involved. These were one-on-one grudge matches played to the death
 

Ted also knew how to give his sons an edge in physical fitness and mental toughness. The boys swam at the beach and ran in the sand hills. Pre-season training meant Sunday morning runs through the soft sand at a time most of their peers were probably sleeping off the previous night. The boys pumped iron in a pre-historic gym where the weights were old and rusty and the environment was cold and damp. Ted believed in what he called "accelerating the implement" - the repetitive use of light weights to help mimic the quick movements needed to play shots against a fast-moving ball.

Cricket in the late 1970s and early 1980s provided plenty of captivating contests for young cricket fans to watch on the television. Clive Lloyd's dominant West Indies side seemed to be out here every second summer. The Australian team was full of characters who played combative cricket. Mike's favourites were Allan Border, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh. Border's string of gutsy innings against the fearsome attacks of West Indies must've had a huge influence on young Mike. In photos as a youngster, he's seen batting right-handed. But he shifted to left-handed so he could be more like AB. Even now, his defiant style and the way he bats with the tail evokes the spirit of his childhood hero.

As with most cricketers born in the 1970s, Mike was a beneficiary of another cricket revolution. In 1979 in Perth, indoor cricket started in Australia. By 1984 there were around 200,000 registered players. For cricket nuts like Mike Hussey it meant indoor nets were available all year, all day and all night, no matter what the weather was like. Mike used to work on his batting at the indoor nets three or four nights a week with his coach Ian Kevan. Mike was facing around 1000 balls a week - the equivalent of every ball bowled in a Test match over two days.



On one occasion when his club side had a bye, Mike took it as an opportunity to have a six-hour, one-on-one training session. The day was split into three two-hour sessions, just like a Test match. "During one of the breaks I actually fell asleep because I was buggered," Kevan recalled in Mr Cricket. "When I woke up I asked one of the fellas nearby where Michael had gone and he said, 'He's just gone for a run,' I couldn't believe it."

While the enclosed spaces of the local indoor cricket centre became the perfect environment for Mike's obsessive training methods, it was the wide open spaces of Mullaloo that provided those crucial first opportunities for the Hussey boys. When Ted and Helen Hussey moved to Mullaloo in 1973, it was one of the fringe suburbs of Perth. All the houses were on big blocks and there was plenty of open space for kids to run around in. While the local indoor centre is still there, the backyards of Mullaloo are evaporating. The old quarter-acre blocks are being subdivided, with two houses being built to a block. The Husseys' old backyard has not been battle-axed. There's still plenty of room to play cricket, though Ted Hussey has built a shed on part of where the old pitch used to be. No doubt it's a more tranquil environment now than it was when his boys were playing their cut-throat test matches in the 1980s.

This is an extract from ABC journalist Steve Cannane's book, First Tests - Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards that Made Them, published this week by ABC Books

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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