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Michael Hussey on being a part of the near-invincible Australian side, coaches, team culture and more
March 14, 2013
Only two Test matches after his retirement, Michael Hussey is being mourned like few Australian batsmen in recent memory. He chose to leave the international game on top, after a career of dazzling versatility, and spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his life and times.
Not missing it?
No, not really. Especially watching India on TV, it looks like it's been really tough work for the boys over there.
I've enjoyed the time at home. I found it quite hard to make the transition out of the international scene and try to fit back into normal living, but I feel like I'm starting to get there now.
It's been nice to still play for WA as well. I haven't made any decisions about next year. I need to get some time away from it all, then clear my mind and make a decision.
Many have wondered why you kept the decision to yourself, though you knew for more or less the whole summer. Was it a case of not wanting to be persuaded otherwise?
It's a good question. I wanted to make sure myself, I wanted to see how I felt through the Australian summer. And my feelings certainly didn't change.
Partly why I didn't want to say anything to anyone was that I cherished every Test match I got to play, and I really wanted to finish the Australian summer. If I made it known earlier, perhaps they would start looking ahead earlier and not play me in my last couple of Tests. That was a small selfish part of it. I didn't want them to say, "You're going to retire, we'll blood someone else." Most of it, though, was making sure I was 100% sure about the decision.
You have mentioned struggling through your last two tours. The UAE-Sri Lanka trip, in particular, seemed a long time away without even a Test match to show for it.
I battled through that. I enjoyed the cricket. It's just the time that you're away. It's not a very good life balance, and if you're a young guy and you haven't got other responsibilities at home, then it probably wouldn't be as bad. And also if you hadn't done it for very long it wouldn't be as bad, because it's all new and exciting. But certainly after eight or ten years, it does wear you down after a while.
You're playing the Sheffield Shield for WA. What are your thoughts on the standard of the competition now?
I think it's been really good. I found it quite hard coming out of Test cricket and into the state team. It's almost like you have to get to know the boys again, get to know the opposition again, and get to know how the cricket's played. [There's also] the difference between Shield cricket and preparing for a Test match. It is a different dynamic. I found that transition difficult but I'm more comfortable the more I do it.
But the competition itself is really good, there's some good players out there.
Fewer hundreds and more results on sportier pitches?
When you came to Adelaide when I first started playing, if you didn't get 450 in the first innings, you were pretty much out of the game. Now you can make 250 and have a very competitive score. Certainly the WACA has been extremely challenging to bat on for all our guys. It is difficult to make big scores when the conditions are favourable for the bowlers, but having said that, it's still been good, hard first-class cricket.
|"I didn't have many shots when I started, but I tried to learn a cut shot one winter and I just hit a million cut shots and brought that into my game"|
Young players now learn all the shots in shorter formats and then find themselves trying to temper them in first-class cricket. Was it preferable for you to start out as an obdurate young opener and then spread your wings later?
Without a doubt. If you can get a good, solid defensive base behind you and if you can learn to play well off front and back foot with a solid technique and defence, then you can really improve your game. What I tried to do when I was a youngster was try to add one shot to my repertoire every winter. I didn't have many shots when I started, but I tried to learn a cut shot one winter and I just hit a million cut shots and brought that into my game.
When I went to England I was able to develop my play against spin a lot more, playing at Northampton, where the conditions were very conducive to spin bowling, so I learned to sweep and reverse sweep and things like that.
Something else you did very well always was to be busy at the crease, working the ball around, not getting caught on strike.
It comes back to how I started, really, and not having any shots, so I had to make sure that when I did get one in the gap, I ran extremely hard, because I didn't feel like I had many scoring opportunities at all. Particularly when I started opening the batting for WA, I got a lot of my runs in little dabs and pushes and deflections. I was taught from a young age that you had to run every run hard.
After that long apprenticeship, your Australia career had three distinct phases - a honeymoon, a more sobering reality, and a big finish.
It's probably what most players go through. I couldn't have dreamed of starting as well as I did. I still pinch myself, really. But you can't expect to score like that all the time. A lot of players experience that things change. You start to take on a bit more responsibility, there's more expectation you put on yourself, suddenly little things don't quite go your way. I was under no illusion that that was going to happen to me, and it did. But I knew if I stayed true to myself, kept preparing, and maybe tried to stay as loose as I possibly could, it would turn eventually, as long as the selectors showed faith in me. They did, and hopefully I was able to repay them.
How did you deal with going from being the new face to a more senior and harried batsman as the team changed around you?
I was very fortunate that I came into a great team, so to be honest it didn't really matter if I did well or didn't do well. There were so many other great players. We had guys like Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Ponting etc. So I could just come in and relax and play and enjoy it, and I did. It was an amazing feeling going out there knowing you were going to win a Test match every time. But obviously things change. Warne retires, McGrath retires, Langer and others retire, and it gets tougher.
Although for me I can't put any more pressure on myself, I think naturally you do see yourself as more of a senior player and take on more responsibility. Other teams also start to target you a bit more. That's part of the education of international cricket. It's tough but you become a better character for going through it.
You've often said you enjoyed celebrating wins, and team-mates enjoyed the enthusiasm of your celebrations. Did you have the most fun in that sense?
Probably at the start, but that was because it was new and fresh and exciting, and there were so many great players around. When something's new and you've wanted it so badly for so long, you probably enjoy it a lot more.
Scheduling has made it a little bit tougher to really let your hair down and enjoy wins more nowadays. It's always a couple of days and then the next game starts, so, particularly at my age, you have to be a little smarter with your recovery. But certainly when I first got into the team I thought every Christmas had come at once. We'd won a Test match. I was playing on great grounds, with and against great players, and I couldn't be happier.
Was there a moment when you sensed a change in the dressing room, when that assurance about winning slipped away?
I remember the day in Sydney when Warne, McGrath and JL retired. I remember sitting there having a beer with the boys and thinking, "Right, things are going to get a lot tougher from now on." And sure enough, it has. You lose those two bowlers in particular and you can't replace them.
I imagine the change in the characters coming through the dressing room had a bearing on that also.
The thing about that team is, it didn't really change much for probably a ten-year period, so they got to know each other extremely well, like brothers. They got to trust each other very well. The environment now will get back to that, I'm sure, but it just takes time. There's been so much change and upheaval in Australian cricket over the last year or so - changing of coaches and selectors, players have come out of the team and new players have come in. So you've got to expect it will take time for trust to build up, friendships to build. If they can keep a good group of guys together, they can get back to having that feeling again.
You had three coaches with Australia, John Buchanan, Tim Nielsen and Mickey Arthur. Your thoughts on John?
I was a huge fan of John Buchanan. I felt he knew what to say to you according to your personality. He knew how to motivate the different players according to what made them tick. He understood personalities, and to me he was very positive, reinforcing and encouraging all the time. He showed a lot of faith in me, and for my personality that's what I really needed. So I think I had a wonderful relationship with him in that respect, and I thought he was a brilliant coach in that regard: he'd treat me completely differently to how he'd treat Matthew Hayden, to Shane Warne, to Ricky Ponting.
|"John Buchanan almost tried to get into an argument with Warne or challenge him with things that were a little bit left-field. Shane would say, 'John, you're dribbling rubbish. I'll show you how to do it', and he'd go out there and do it. In my mind that's absolutely genius coaching"|
The popular view these days seems to be to discredit Buchanan by saying that anyone at all could have coached that team.
People can argue that as much as they like. My opinion? I think it takes a great skill to bring so many personalities and egos together and [make them] want to play together as a team. I think the way John spoke to and treated and tried to motivate Shane was genius. He almost tried to get into an argument with him or challenge him with things that were a little bit left-field. So Shane would say, "John, you're dribbling rubbish. I'll show you how to do it", and he'd go out there and do it. In my mind that's absolutely genius coaching.
Nielsen went from being Buchanan's assistant and the team confidant to the head coach, and he also had to deal with the difficult period after those retirements.
Tim's great strengths were that he was very empathetic, and he always was on your side, backing you, being positive, believing in you, feeling for you in the hard times. He was like a great mate as well as a coach. The other great attribute he had was his work ethic. He would throw balls all day to every player; he wouldn't favour any player. And he just loves the game so much. He was one of the first guys I rang when I decided to retire. I wanted him to know before the world found out.
During that time you also had a significantly challenging period, arguing with Cricket Australia about getting to India for a Test series from the Champions League in 2010.
It was more a personal thing. I was really disappointed because I was desperate to get there. My understanding was that the Test tour starts when the team flies out of Australia, and they weren't allowing me to leave South Africa, where the Champions League was, until literally a couple of days before the Test. The team had already been in India for a time getting used to the conditions. So I was really disappointed I couldn't go and prepare for a Test match.
India's a tough place to play at the best of times, and if you don't have very good preparation going into it, you're not going to perform well, and I think, looking back, it was close to costing me my career. I came back into the Australian summer where I felt under enormous pressure. If I didn't start well, I could've been out of the team. I had one Shield game in Adelaide where I got 0 and 1, and in Melbourne I got a duck in the first innings and thankfully managed to get some runs in the second innings. If that had been the end, and one of the reasons why I was left out, because I wasn't able to prepare properly, I would've been pretty disappointed because I couldn't give my best to the team, but angry that it would've cost me my career.
Arthur then came in as coach during all the changes being wrought by the Argus review.
I'd had a little bit to do with Mickey when he coached Western Australia, so I knew him a little better than the other guys in the Australian team. It was a really hard time to be around the Australian team. We had new everything - selectors, coach, administration, captain, new players coming into the team. In a way, everyone became a little bit insular and just tried to make sure they were doing their own thing and worrying about their own backyard. I'm sure as things bed down more and people get more confident about their roles, hopefully the trust and the culture can grow from there. I think the team has performed particularly well, considering there's been so much change.
One of the defining things about the 18 months since then was the axis between Michael Clarke and yourself at Nos. 5 and 6.
Michael was very keen to bat at No. 5 - he's done extremely well there. They were really looking to try to develop a new No. 3, with Ricky coming towards the end, to try to have someone like Ricky at No. 4 and then have a new No. 3 who could be there for a long time. Then the only place left is for me to slide down to No. 6.
But it's a role I quite enjoyed. One, I had some brilliant partnerships with Michael and we batted really well together, but two, I really enjoyed batting with the tail as well, looking to eke out runs and play cat and mouse with the opposition captain and stuff like that. It's a tough position to bat as well - you might come in when the ball's reversing or spinning, and you might come in for the second new ball as well.
Your successful batting relationship with Clarke intrigues, because you have played wonderfully together. Yet there is a perception that you are quite different people.
We're definitely different. We see the game totally differently. He is a lot more forward-thinking and a lot more positive than I am, I'm always quite conservative and probably a bit negative at times, whereas he's always positive-thinking and trying to make things happen. Out in the middle it might look like it's entertaining and fun and free-flowing, but we're both very insecure. There's a lot of doubts and a lot of negative talk. "I can't score a run, I don't know where it's coming from", and Pup's saying, "Just back up mate, I just want to get down the other end - I can't face this guy." So a lot of people say we looked like we're doing it easy, but it's never ever like that. We're always right on each other's hammer.
How did you feel about the transition from Ricky to Michael as captain and the results that have followed?
I think it's run as well as it possibly could, really. It's very difficult to take over from someone like Ricky, who's a champion of the Australian team - captain and player. That would have been very difficult for Pup. But he has had the courage and the boldness to be able to do it his way and done it with a lot of success. I think he's done a brilliant job in taking over the team, and picking out the things that he thinks are important and the direction he wants to take the team, and going for it.
Your own captaincy experience for Australia was brief - four ODIs, four defeats in 2006-07 - but what did you take from it?
Well, my last result as captain of Australia was actually a victory on the Ashes tour against Northampton, so I'm sticking to that one as my last captaincy stint! I'm not too worried about the results I had, because it's very difficult to come in and make a stamp as captain if you're just filling in. So I think the way I look at it is as a great honour.
If I was to be given the job over a longer period of time, I'd have loved it, if I had time to implement things I think are important, shape the team, try to motivate players to get the best out of individuals. You can't just have a three-match series and try to change a heap of things. But in saying that, I've loved playing under Ricky, he was the best captain I played under.
As a batsman you played a great variety of innings, but were there a few, like in Sydney against India in 2008, setting up victories, that brought the most satisfaction?
I enjoyed all my Test hundreds, but the ones I really enjoyed the most were the ones where I came in when we were in trouble or there was a chance to try to get the team into a position where we could win the Test match in the second innings. So that one in 2008 and the one against Pakistan [in 2010] where we managed to bowl them out for 150 or so in the last innings - they are extremely satisfying. Because you've gone out there and with a few good partnerships been able to get your team into a position to win. And when you actually go on and win, it's so rewarding.
|"Scheduling has made it a little bit tougher to really enjoy wins more nowadays. It's always a couple of days and then the next game starts, so you have to be a little smarter with your recovery. But certainly when I first got into the team I thought every Christmas had come at once"|
I used to get really frustrated coming in to bat in one-day cricket at, say, Nos. 6 or 7, and it seemed like every time I got a good score, we seemed to lose, because we didn't have enough at the top. I used to go back to my hotel room feeling so frustrated. It's so much better when you contribute and the team wins - you have the biggest smile when you go to bed that night.
Among your most-talked about efforts was that to get Australia into the World Twenty20 final in 2010, against Pakistan. It was probably an innings your 21-year-old self simply could not have imagined playing.
I watch footage of it now and I can't believe it happened. Every now and then, only a couple of times in your whole career, things just seem to fall into place. On that day it just happened to be my day and nothing was going to get in the way. I don't know how it happened or why it happened. Everyone over a long career can say they had one day where everything seemed to go for you.
In a way it was the culmination of your evolution from a stodgy young opening batsman without many shots to an all-purpose player who could hit any shot and do so with power.
When I came in, Cameron White was going quite well, so it was just my goal to try to give him the strike. But we needed 14 or 15 an over, then Cameron got out and I thought, "We're not going to win this game now", and it's almost like the pressure goes off. I'll just have a bit of a go and see what happens, but it's no disgrace if we don't quite get there, we've made the semi-final. Hit one and all of a sudden the confidence starts to grow. I still didn't think we were going to win the game. Even in the last over after I'd hit the first two balls for six, I still thought it was unlikely. It wasn't until we needed one run that I thought about it and all the tension came back. "We should win this now, don't stuff up, don't get out now."
The way you talk about the game, your time with the WA team now, and also your long-abandoned teaching career, all suggest there's a mentor or coach in there.
Maybe. My plan in my own mind was to give everything a go and find out what I liked. Talking to Justin Langer, he says that you almost need to find a project, something that's going to drive you and motivate you. Whether that's becoming the best commentator in the world or coach in the world or to mentor young guys. You've got to find what it is. We're not people who can sit back and cruise. We need something to keep driving us along.
Lastly, this summer we saw a lot of tears, from Clarke, Ponting and yourself. So it felt like the end of something, of a tie with the past being cut. Did it feel that way to you?
Most of my emotions were happy ones. I felt like I'd achieved 100 times more than I'd ever have been able to in the international arena. I didn't want the stress and the anguish that comes with international cricket anymore. I didn't want the time away, and so I was excited about being home a lot more and being part of my family's life. I wanted to go out in Australia because I love the Australian summer, and the Sydney Test is unbelievable to play in, and I didn't feel like I needed to do any more. I didn't have to prove myself to anyone else or to myself. It would be great to have the Ashes, but I have won an Ashes series, so I didn't feel there was much left to achieve. It was a great time to go.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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