Hussey and North fight for survival
Michael Hussey and Marcus North have known each other since their childhood days in Perth playing for Wanneroo, but now they're fighting to hold on to their membership of a far more elite club. When the Australian players step out on to the Gabba in ten days to battle for the Ashes, few in the team will be under more pressure than Hussey and North. That's assuming they're in the side.
The presence of the prolific New South Wales batsman Usman Khawaja and the South Australian Callum Ferguson in the 17-man squad for the first Test has intensified the questions over whether Australia's established batting group will survive the summer. At 35, and with only one century to his name in the past year, Hussey has the most to lose. Not that he's showing any signs of panic.
"I don't think you can really worry about anyone else," Hussey said after arriving in Melbourne for Western Australia's Sheffield Shield match, starting at the MCG on Wednesday. "The most important thing is for me to try to concentrate on my preparation. Playing well in this Shield game against Victoria is the first thing to concentrate on, and help WA have a win. And then just to prepare as though I'm going to play in the Test match.
"If you start clouding your mind worrying about other guys, or if they're going to get picked, or if you're not going to get picked, you're taking your mind off what's important. For me, the focus is on preparing to play and preparing to be part of that first Test match and not worrying about anyone else."
It's a method that sounds good, but is easier said than done. Hussey failed in his most recent first-class outing, for the Warriors a fortnight ago, and while he's facing up to the Victorians in Melbourne, Ferguson and Khawaja will be trying to feast on England's second-string attack for Australia A at Bellerive Oval.
North is in a similar situation. His century in Bangalore last month, and his hundred for Western Australia upon returning home have given him some breathing space, but he has less credits in the bank than the more experienced Hussey. Both men will be seriously vulnerable if they record a couple of failures, which makes it all the more important to succeed in this week's Shield game and enter the Gabba Test with some confidence.
"Not at all," North said when asked if he was worried about the selection of Khawaja and Ferguson. "These guys have been performing well this season and the back end of last season. It's a reflection of the domestic cricket. There's always been good young players playing and scoring a lot of runs.
"The fact that they're in the squad is credit to their performances and it's always an honour to be named in any squad, so it's good to see those guys in. It is a big series and it is five Test matches. I'm more concerned about my preparation this week, going into this Shield game and, mentally and training-wise going into the first Test match."
At 31, North could feasibly fight his way back into the side if he lost his place this summer. The same cannot be said of Hussey, who will be doing well if he is able to leave Test cricket at a time of his own choosing. He entered the 2006-07 Ashes with an average of 75.93; he begins this campaign averaging 33.19 over the past two years, during which time he has managed only two centuries.
"I'm actually pretty philosophical about it," Hussey said of his extended lean period. "I understand how the game works. My first couple of years, you can't keep those performances going forever, so you've got to expect there's going to be a time when things don't quite go your way. That's the game of cricket - it's a great leveller."
Hussey had better hope that great leveller doesn't raze him to the ground.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at Cricinfo