From golden to mortal
No matter what he achieved, how brilliantly he batted, or how much respect he gathered among team-mates, opponents and spectators, Michael Hussey always thought of himself as an underdeveloped nicker and nudger, to whom power and puberty arrived embarrassingly late. Like William Miller in Almost Famous, Hussey was the kid who looked as though he'd been skipped a grade or two, shorter, skinnier and less hairy than it was socially acceptable to be in his teenage years. Batting was an unrelenting struggle against inner voices telling him he wasn't good enough.
But also like Miller, and his real-life inspiration, Cameron Crowe, on the rock 'n roll road of the early 1970s, Hussey learned valuable lessons from those awkward days. He was always respectful, thoughtful and keen to do the right things by those around him, while the self-doubt born of being smaller and less capable of muscling the ball ensured that as a batsman he never took anything for granted. Hussey was intense but personable, earnest and enthusiastic, and far, far more talented a batsman than he ever gave himself credit for.
At times, the lack of assurance made his life less enjoyable than it might have been, and it probably scuppered his leadership ambitions after a belated but spectacular entry into international cricket. Nevertheless, he developed into arguably the most complete batsman the game has yet seen, as much at home in the hustle and bustle of a T20 contest as in the cut and thrust of a Test, and anything in between. Seldom has a cricketer known better how to operate in a partnership than Hussey. He enjoyed the thrill of victory as much as any Australian cricketer ever has, becoming much more gregarious and entertaining company in those moments, and rightly being granted the privilege of leading the team song when Justin Langer retired.
The title of the song, "Underneath the Southern Cross", has become the title of Hussey's autobiography, a valuable account of a late-blooming career but also an admirably frank survey of Australian cricket over that time. Like the team around him, Hussey's account peaks during the 2006-07 Ashes series before slipping down into more regretful, even mournful, territory, as success gave way to defeats, introspection, unrelenting media speculation about his place, and finally the emergence of an insular team culture Hussey does not pretend to say he enjoyed.
Starting with a bruising duel against Dale Steyn in Durban in 2009, an encounter he viewed dimly as a failure while team-mates marvelled, Hussey retraces his life. With the help of an accomplished ghostwriter in Malcolm Knox - also the penner of Adam Gilchrist's True Colours - what emerges is a detailed picture of life as a cricket-crazed child, a battling first-class cricketer, then finally an international batsman of rare versatility. Key moments are discussed candidly and at times revealingly, from the SCG dressing-room confrontation between Simon Katich and Michael Clarke over Hussey's singing of the team song, to the confused circumstances of his final night in that same dressing room earlier this year and the hurtful email rumour that resulted from it.
As valuable, however, are insights into other cricketers great and small. At the DLF Cup in Malaysia in 2006 for instance, a sequence of 6, 4, 4, 4, 4 by Brian Lara against the South Australian spinner Dan Cullen had its catalyst in the young bowler calling his opponent a "cocky p***k". Then there is a curious interaction between Michael Clarke and Sachin Tendulkar during the fractious 2007-08 summer. After an ODI win in Sydney, Michael Clarke called out Tendulkar on his habit of not shaking hands after a match, trekking into the visitors' rooms and startling India's maestro, who said that he'd forgotten. "You don't forget to shake hands after an international match," Hussey notes. "Perhaps Sachin wasn't a god, just another human like the rest of us."
Hussey's portraits of Clarke and his predecessor, Ponting, are two of the more fascinating passages of his tale. He struggles to find strong enough words to convey his admiration for Ponting as a batsman, a leader and a man, while speaking warmly of Clarke as a batting partner and a nimble captain stepping into enormous shoes. The contrast is summed up by observations of how his slow medium pace was used. Under Ponting, a tidy over against a rampant Tendulkar in Hyderabad has Hussey earning another, more expensive over. Hussey is convinced the experiment is complete, but Ponting chances a third, which promptly goes for 14 runs. Clarke, by contrast, uses Hussey as a surprise weapon, striking it lucky by grabbing wickets in Sri Lanka and the West Indies then immediately taking him off.
Hussey's own brief flirtation with the Australian captaincy is also unpacked. A demoralising visit to New Zealand with an under-strength team before the 2007 World Cup ended his chances of pursuing the role any further. He admits to not having the conviction to impose his ideas on the rest of the team, particularly the bowlers, as New Zealand twice ran down scores of well over 300. "I tried to be very consultative, supporting the bowlers individually, but I went too far," he writes. "If the bowler thought differently from me, I let him have his way."
Aware that many have assumed they did not get along, Hussey goes out of his way to depict a strong relationship with Clarke, demonstrated by a string of partnerships that humbugged Sri Lanka, India and South Africa in 2011 and 2012. Over that time, Hussey's own enthusiasm for the task was waning as the Argus review took the team in different directions to those he preferred, removing a coach he admired in Tim Nielsen and replacing him with one he was unsure about in Mickey Arthur. There was success for a time, but Hussey saw signs of decay in the West Indies. His concerns were relayed to Arthur but went no further.
At the same time the wages of constant travel were draining both Hussey and his wife Amy, a steadfast presence in his life since they met and courted endearingly as teaching students at Curtin University in the early 1990s. Eventually he decided that, as with Miller on the Stillwater tour bus, he had to leave the circus. It had changed into something he felt less warmth about than previously, and there is something elegiac about the comparisons made between the Australian team he walked into and the one he was to leave.
By keeping his retirement plans a secret, Hussey found himself following the insular lines he had seen set around him. He was self-effacing to the last, only allowing himself the indulgence of walking first on to the field of his final Test after Clarke refused to take the field until he did. Now Hussey's career account is on the shelves, and he is preparing to take on a role in the Nine commentary box. It is a worthwhile reminder of how great players can be made as well as born, and how the influence of formative years can shape a cricketer for the term of his career.
Underneath the Southern Cross
By Michael Hussey
400 pages, A$49.95
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here