Australia news December 29, 2012

The unexpected departure

Michael Hussey's retirement has come as a surprise and it leaves Australia with a vast hole to fill ahead of a double Ashes year

A Michael Hussey half-century could sneak up on you. Didn't he just go in? Before you knew it, he would be into the sixties, the seventies, the eighties. Could you remember a standout shot? Occasionally. It is not that they were unworthy of notice, just that Hussey's style was understated. A crisp cover-drive here, a well-timed pull there, often while the attention was on his partner, Michael Clarke or Ricky Ponting, perhaps.

Whoever he was batting with, Hussey was busy to the point of urgent. Over 22 yards, wearing pads and holding a bat, Usain Bolt would have struggled to beat him. Ones became twos, twos became threes. He was hungry to squeeze every run possible out of an innings. Ravenous. After all, his first Test came at the age of 30. Ponting, a man of the same vintage, had a ten-year head-start.

Now, Hussey's retirement has sneaked up on Australian cricket just as his runs did. This summer, the hunger has remained: his average in 2012 is 59.86, higher than any year since the Bradmanesque start to his career from 2005-07. But he no longer has the desire to spend long periods away from home, away from his wife Amy and four young children. Hussey was one of the few men whose training ethic could match that of Ponting. But no more.

In many ways, Hussey's departure leaves a bigger hole than that of Ponting. Unlike Ponting, Hussey will retire on top of his game. He would have been a key man, arguably the most important besides Clarke, over the four-Test series against India and back-to-back Ashes contests next year. In a graph of Test runs and centuries scored by Australia's top six for their India tour, Clarke will be a Burj Khalifa compared to his colleagues' single-storey dwellings.

Most likely, Usman Khawaja will take Hussey's place in the team. Cowan, Warner, Hughes, Watson, Clarke, Khawaja. All are fine batsmen, but the experience and composure of Hussey at No.6 will be irreplaceable. It is no coincidence that during Hussey's leanest patch of form - from late 2008 until the start of the 2010-11 Ashes series he scored only two centuries in 28 Tests - Australia lost an Ashes series, two Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, and to South Africa at home.

One of his few successes during that time was his unbeaten 134 against Pakistan at the SCG, and his partnership with the tail-ender Peter Siddle during that innings turned the match from an almost certain Pakistan win into a remarkable Australian come-from-behind victory. His career renaissance began with the opening Test of the 2010-11 Ashes, but nothing he did during that series could save Australia from themselves.

That Ashes series and the Sri Lankan Test tour that followed it six months later were the two most productive of Hussey's Test career. Hussey was Man of the Match in all three Tests in Sri Lanka, with scores of 95, 15, 142, 118 and 93. At last, his mind was clear again. For the previous couple of years, Hussey had questioned himself and his mind became clouded. That's what happens when there's too much in there.

These days, Cowan is the member of Australia's side most known for analysis - or over-analysis. Before Cowan, there was Hussey. A compulsive compiler of lists, after matches Hussey would scrutinise his performance and catalogue his goals, jot down the things he needed to work on. If Shane Warne was the troublemaker in Professor John Buchanan's class of 2005-07, Hussey was the teacher's pet.

"I am getting itchy again and keen to get into it, but I am trying to hold off for another couple of weeks," Hussey wrote in an email to Buchanan in 2006 after the coach asked each player to consider their training for the upcoming Champions Trophy, Ashes and World Cup campaigns. Hussey went on to outline in detail his plans. There were dot points, subheadings, examples. It read like a lesson plan. Not surprisingly, Hussey was trained as a science teacher.

In many ways, Hussey's departure leaves a bigger hole than that of Ponting. Unlike Ponting, Hussey will retire on top of his game. He would have been a key man, arguably the most important besides Clarke, over the four-Test series against India and back-to-back Ashes contests next year

Attention to detail was Hussey's trademark. At times, it was also his weakness, for he could be prone to overthinking. But there was a more visceral side to Hussey as well, best shown by the passion he displayed as leader of the team song, Under the Southern Cross. In the centre of the MCG on Friday evening, Hussey stood in the middle of the Australian team huddle as the beers flowed, and led his team-mates in their celebrations.

From Rod Marsh to Allan Border to David Boon to Ian Healy to Ricky Ponting to Justin Langer, the holder of that unofficial office is generally the heart and soul of Australia's Test team. So it was with Hussey, whose was also remarkable for his durability. Next week's Sydney Test will be his 79th consecutive Test since his 2005 debut. No other Australian has played every Test in that time.

His fitness is legendary. Once, after an Australia A tour, Hussey was told by Border that in order to become a Test player he would need to prepare himself to bat a full day by training for at least six hours a day. The batting coach Ian Kevan guided Hussey through a long day of training, two hours then a lunch break, two more hours then a tea break, and two more hours before "stumps". By the end, Kevan was exhausted and took a nap. Hussey went for a run.

At that point, Hussey's desire to become a Test cricketer was insatiable. While a Sheffield Shield player, he wrote to Australia's captain Steve Waugh to ask what he could do to become mentally tough enough for Test cricket. Waugh was retired by the time Hussey got his chance in the baggy green. By the time of his Test debut, he had 15,313 first-class runs to his name, a record for an Australian player before his first Test.

Hussey's first years of Test cricket provided Bradman-like runs. After 20 Tests he was averaging 84.80. That mark didn't drop below 60 until Test No.33. In the limited-overs arena he was Australia's finest finisher since Michael Bevan. At his peak, he reached the No.1 ranking on the ICC's list of batsmen in both Test cricket and ODIs. He will finish 12th on Australia's ODI run tally and 11th on the ODI list.

A member of Australia's triumphant 2007 World Cup squad in the West Indies, Hussey was also the reason the Australians reached the World T20 final in the Caribbean three years later. His unbeaten 60 from 24 balls against Pakistan in the semi-final was one of the format's great international innings, given the stakes. The power and timing he displayed in clearing the boundary six times was remarkable.

Off the field, Hussey was - and still is - one of the most down-to-earth, personable cricketers Australia has produced in the professional era. Unfailingly polite, he would never refuse an autograph hunter, and would always greet the media warmly, regardless of what they had written about him. His amiability made him a regular at press conferences on difficult days for the Australian team. On such occasions, few of his team-mates would have the patience to answer tough questions. Hussey would, and always with a sense of perspective.

Perspective is a rare trait in professional sportsmen. But as a father of four - including two children who were born premature at 28 weeks - Hussey knows there is plenty to life beyond cricket. At the end of this summer the game will be poorer for his permanent absence but the Hussey family will be richer for his full-time presence.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here