‘As youngsters, all we had known was Australian success in the Ashes’
When Mike Hussey speaks of his first experience of entering the Australian dressing room in November 2005 he does so with the infectious enthusiasm of a Monty Panesar LBW enquiry.
Hussey had been called into the team, to take on the West Indies at the Gabba, as a replacement for Justin Langer. It was a dressing room filled with legends of the game; from Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting to Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee. As well as a certain shy and retiring bleach-blond leg spinner…
`The day I walked in the boys made me feel like I deserved to be there and was good enough to be in that team — they really backed me right from the start,’ he tells The Independent.
`The one guy I was really worried about and intimidated by was probably Shane Warne. On the morning of the match he could see that I was really nervous.
`He just pulled me aside in the toilets and said `Huss, you don’t have anything to prove to anyone in this dressing room — you’ve got to go out there and play your own way, we all back you, if you play your game you can’t fail’. For someone like Warney to say that really did mean the world to me.’
It did the trick too. By the time Hussey lined up against England on home soil a year later, his Test average was 75.93 — the highest of any player in the modern era.
Contrast the stable winning environment that the then 30-year-old Hussey entered back in November 2005 with the chaotic one that Australia’s latest generation have walked into, though, and its little wonder that Michael Clarke’s side enter this winter’s Ashes series as underdogs, an unthinkable scenario eight years ago.
`It’s definitely different,’ says Hussey. `We’ve got a lot more young new players coming into the team and it probably puts more pressure on these young guys because when I came into the team that, to be honest, it probably didn’t matter if I performed or I didn’t. The game was going to be won or lost by the great players in that side, not me.`As it stands now, you’ve got quite a few young players, which not only puts more pressure on Michael Clarke and Shane Watson but also on the young blokes because they have to perform and contribute as well.’
Hussey had to wait until the age of 30 to make his Test bow but over 79 Tests would establish himself as one of Australia’s most consistent batsmen. But despite remaining a thorn in England’s side, Hussey could only watch on as Australia’s bubble of superiority was well and truly pricked.
`When I was falling in love with cricket as a youngster all we had known was Australian success in the Ashes,’ he says. `It’s certainly a bit different now but we have to be realistic, these things go in cycles. We’ve been rebuilding whereas England have been able to keep a crop of players together for a long time.
`They’re hardened Test match performers that know their role in the team. When you can keep players together like that and show faith it’s amazing the success you can have.’
When Hussey played in Australia’s 5-0 whitewash of England in 2006/07, just 12 players wore the famous Baggy Green in the Test series, with Andrew Symonds replacing Damien Martyn after the opening matches in Brisbane and Adelaide.
This summer, Australia’s scattergun selection policy saw 17 players handed the chance to try and wrestle back the Ashes from England’s vice-like grip and two of them, Steve Smith and Ashton Agar, weren’t in the original touring party. The days when an Australian Second XI would have offered formidable opposition against almost every Test side in the world had never seemed so far off.
The arrival of Darren Lehmann to replace Mickey Arthur as coach brought a semblance of unity but Ricky Ponting’s recent comments concerning Clarke’s original suitability to take over from him as captain have once again put the Aussie skipper in the spotlight.
`You would probably have concerns about whoever was taking over from Ricky because he was such an incredibly tough man to take over from,’ says Hussey. `He was a legendary player and a legendary captain.
`He (Clarke) is very good in the direction he wants to take the team and you have to understand as well that there has been a huge change around Cricket Australia and the team in the last 18 months.
We’ve had new selectors, we have a new coach and we’ve had new administrators and new players coming in.
`Other than the last six months the results have been quite strong. I think having Darren there will help too.
In the middle of a Test match there’s so much tension and stress and what Darren will do is help them relax off the field, get them laughing the dressing room and getting them to play with freedom and a relaxed attitude.
`As for the Clarke and Watson relationship, I think it has been overblown. Whether they had disagreements behind closed doors I’m not sure but whenever they were around the team they put on a united front. I didn’t detect any tension between the two.’
He did, though, voice concerns about a fracturing of unity under previous coach Arthur. In his recently published autobiography, Underneath the Southern Cross, Hussey expressed frustration at how Australia’s team ethic had changed.
`We were fostering an environment where guys only cared about their positions and didn’t think about the team,’ he wrote.
It was this kind of attitude that prevailed in English cricket as Australia romped from one Ashes success to another for 18 years. Changing that mindset remains Lehmann’s biggest challenge and, having retired in January, Hussey is clearly relieved that it’s no longer a problem he has to help tackle.
`I miss the boys and certainly the dressing room but I don’t miss the stress, the pressure and the expectation,’ he says.
How England cope with all three will go a long way to deciding whether Hussey will be smiling in the Channel Nine commentary box this winter.
Michael Hussey’s autobiography Underneath the Southern Cross is published by Hardie Grant Books.