How Hussey got his groove back
The Australian player with the most to lose has improved his team's chances of developing a winning position. For two years Michael Hussey has been clinging on, but with his spot in increasing danger he has let go. By choosing his destiny and combining freedom and purpose, he is being watched by the selectors purely for pleasure. Their red pens now look elsewhere to mark crosses.
A true professional stirs when the danger is most severe, but Hussey didn't merely save his place by grafting or working the ball, like he did at The Oval in 2009 and the SCG in January. This time he was a fresh shot-maker, an aggressor chasing early boundaries instead of settling in by leaving and hoping. When the rain and bad light arrived with 17 overs still to bowl he had breezed to 81 and belted 13 fours and a six.
The only periods in which he looked like the Hussey of the recent past were his opening ball and when he was fretting about the conditions towards the end. As he walked off he carried the heavy steps of a man with a major responsibility, rather than the light-striding batsman who had pushed his team to within 40 runs of England's first innings.
At his most consistent, Hussey is an accumulator who becomes less cautious the further his account inflates. He entered this series without any credit and knew it was time for some risks. Having re-trained his mind to attack during his century against Western Australia last week - an innings which convinced the selectors he was still valuable - he was quickly showing signs that he could move on from his run of Test troubles.
There was none of the fidgeting and reliance on defence in the early stages, even when he edged Steven Finn just short of Graeme Swann at second slip. "It just goes to show how much the game is a fine line," he said. "Nicking that first one, I was praying it would fall short and thankfully it did. A foot more and I was gone for a first-ball duck."
His intent was soon evident in the size of his purposeful lunges, either forward or back, as he waited to swing. This was the version of Hussey that was so successful between 2005 and 2008. Finn dropped a touch short and Hussey unleashed a brutal pull for his second scoring shot, an attack he repeated in the bowler's next over and beyond.
Swann, a former team-mate at Northamptonshire, initially wanted to tease Hussey forward with some flight. There was no doubt or delay as Hussey raced at the ball and dropped it for six to long-on. "I was beaten in the flight, just followed through, and it came out of the middle," he said modestly.
The start was so fresh he was more like Brad Haddin or Matthew Hayden than the workmanlike Hussey. When Swann dropped short he was also pulled and by the time Hussey was on 40 only two runs had not come from boundaries.
The Australians were desperate to attack Swann early to dent his confidence ahead of a pitch that will suit him better in Adelaide. Despite the unsteady scorecard, Hussey followed the plan and five of his boundaries and 37 of his runs came from the offspinner. Another five fours were taken from Finn, a 21-year-old, who the hosts would also like to ruffle.
At one point Swann had three men on the boundary on the legside but it still was not enough to stop Hussey's pulling power. "I wanted to be positive," he said. "I do get in a bit of trouble when I'm tentative and a bit negative."
Finn had already seen one of his short balls split the two men protecting the rope behind square. The crack of the strokes even told those who were unfortunate enough to be looking away that this was a man with his game back.
"It's a time where my mind is a lot clearer and maybe I'm just seeing the ball a bit clearer out of the bowler's hand," he said. "At other times in the last couple of years, there's maybe been other clouds or doubts or negative thoughts going through my mind. Or the situation of the game, or what the pitch is doing. It stops you playing with the same freedom."
There was some caution displayed against James Anderson and Stuart Broad, but Hussey was in command throughout the performance. However, he knows there is much more to do. This is the longest Test series in the game and Hussey is aware of how swiftly the contest can change.
Australia were in the dominant position until their latest batting wheeze, which allowed England to feel better about their first-innings 260. The hosts are strong at the top, with Shane Watson and Simon Katich putting on another half-century stand, but they have been weak in the middle. The stomach of the local order softened again and after Ricky Ponting (10), Michael Clarke (9) and Marcus North (1) departed, it was left to Hussey to deliver the punches.
In this game Australia have relied on two men who began it with doubts over their spots. The selectors were right to look to Hussey and Peter Siddle, who have covered up the deficiencies of some faltering team-mates.
No side performs with all its recruits on fire, but the lack of output in key areas is as concerning for the locals as the return of the real Hussey was brilliant.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo