Mike Hussey, who ended his phenomenal career today, ranks as one of the greatest Australian batsmen ever – a feat even more striking given that he won his Baggy Green cap after he was 30. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who oozed old world charm in the slam bang days of modern cricket. –
In some obscure dictionary of the romantic, if we thumb through the pages tattered by the whirlwind of time, we will still find cricket listed as a noble game. The spirit of the game still hovers somewhere even as the landscape goes through upheaval, when time is desperately squeezed from the past periphery of eternityinto the three hours of hit and giggle.
And if there was one cricketer who upheld the romantic spirit of the game, lacing his presence on the field with all the old-fashioned virtues associated with the sport, it was Michael Hussey. One look at him going about making runs at the wicket with clean, hassle-free and gimmick-less honesty, smilingly cheering his side from the gully, or shedding sincere sweat of the brow at the nets – and one could rest assured that the cricket god was in heaven and all was good with the game.
Indeed, “Mr. Cricket” might have been a questionable sobriquet, controversial enough to raise a lot of eyebrows of the several self-proclaimed guardians of the game go about relentlessly repeating, “No one is greater than the game.” But, it fitted Hussey like a snug made-to-order glove, and no one questioned his claims of putting it on.
Old world charm
He was as unlike a modern day cricketer as imaginable. By the time he made his debut, he was famously over 30, with more First-Class runs in his collection than any uncapped modern day batsman. All this seemed to add to the fineries of the old world charm that he carried with him as he went about playing the game.
With Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Michael Clarke and the rest of them lording it over the crease, getting into the Australian line up was a backbreaking task – and mountains of runs that Hussey accumulated in Sheffield Shield were not enough to carry him into the side. However, while others may have given up hope and the zeal for run-making, Hussey went on and on. And when finally he made his debut in the Australian summer of 2005 at Brisbane, he was a finished product – all the parts rigorously perfected, forged by the test of time.
What was it that made Hussey continue to score more and more? Was it the incredible urge to succeed at the highest level that kept him going for a decade in the side-lines?
Somehow it seems that the answer may be found in his nickname. Hussey loved to play the game, occupy the crease and keep batting. It was not the face of relentless ambition of someone like Ricky Ponting. For him it was more of an act of fulfilment, the satisfaction of standing at the crease and scoring more and more runs. He gave the indication of being prepared to bat for weeks if allowed. What worked for him may have been the simple enjoyment of the game – yet another old world characteristic that shone through. According to the man himself: ”I would’ve loved to get an opportunity earlier, there’s no question about that. I would’ve maybe liked to go through what young players go through at international level where you come in, you’re so excited to be there, probably go through some hard times and then come out the other side a batter player. But in a lot of ways it probably did help me to be able to perform consistently at international level, to have so much First-Class cricket behind me. To learn about the game and learn about batting and learn about myself as a person, I think held me in very good stead when I came to the international game when there’s so many distractions externally, to be able to put them aside and concentration my game. Knowing what worked for me helped me definitely.”
Sojourn in the stratosphere
Whatever be the reason, the story of Hussey’s batting feats once he squeezed into the Australian middle-order is a statistician’s delight. He took to Test cricket as if the last 128 years had been spend in building the ideal platform for him to be launched into action.
He did not give the impression of trying hard to make up for lost time. He was just doing what came naturally to him. Working the ball away square of the wicket; caressing it through the covers; in rare cases, when the stakes were high and urgency floated in the air, lofting and pulling with controlled aggression. Perhaps the natural elegance of a left-hander was somewhat absent, but it did not affect the bottom line. All the while he scored tons and tons of runs. Having played most of his First-Class cricket as an opener, he had fitted into the Australian middle-order to perfection.
In a mere 166 days, he had topped 1000 in 11 Tests with an average in the 70s. In a little more than two years, in just 20 Tests, he had crossed 2000, and his batting average stood at a superhuman 84.80.
In One-Day Internationals (ODIs), he went about making runs with the same meticulous accumulation, without unnecessary pyrotechnics. At the end of his 32nd ODI, he had amassed 902 runs at an average of 102, and a strike-rate a shade below 100.
While all over the world, analysts, statisticians and cricketers followed his career in open-mouthed amazement, Hussey himself remained rooted to the ground. He himself had little doubt that the glorious phase was bound to pass and the oscillations of cricketing fortune would sooner or later bring his numbers plummeting into the realms of mortals.
True, in both forms of the game his figures could not keep soaring at those dizzy levels. From 2008, runs became difficult to get. The last fifty Tests of his career showed a rate of 43 runs per innings. Yet, he went about to the wicket with a smile, walked briskly away when dismissed and cheered as loudly from the gully. He remained dependable even when not at his peak, and once in a while the odd hundred did trickle through. The big knocks grew less frequent, but did not dry up altogether.
One of the greatest
If one looks closely enough, several holes can be detected in his records. An average of 41.37 away from home as opposed to 60.75 on the Australian wickets does make one wonder whether an earlier introduction to the vagaries of foreign conditions might have sculpted a more all-round batsman. In England, South Africa and West Indies, his bat remained strangely unproductive. However, he did redeem himself in the subcontinent with 1198 runs in 11 Tests.
It is fitting that his last series was against Sri Lanka, a side against whom he enjoyed immense success, with 967 runs in eight Tests at 107.44. If we consider all batsmen in history with a cut off of 300 runs or more, Hussey emerges as the best against the Lankans. Coupled with his reasonable success in India (493 runs at nearly 45), its testimony to his mastery over spin.
He ended with 6208 runs in 79 Tests at an admirable average of 51.30 with 19 hundreds. Figures that may have dipped from the stratospheric heights of his initial couple of years, but establish him firmly as one of the great batsmen in the history of the game.
Among Australians with more than 5000 runs, he is at number five according to batting average – ahead of the likes of Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden, Allan Border and Neil Harvey.
Australians with more than 5000 runs
And in this day and age, his limited number of matches and runs seem to set his career statistics aglow with the same old world charm that forever marked his game. These are very like the tallies one would expect of a Ken Barrington, Rohan Kanhai, Peter May or a Neil Harvey.
In ODIs, his collection of 5442 runs in 185 matches at 48.15 at a strike rate of 87.16 may be a drastic drop from the first 33 outings, but is phenomenal when considered in absolute terms. Only a handful of batsmen – MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar and Viv Richards among them – have an average-strike rate combination as remarkable as the left-hander.
Questions and conjectures of what might have been are bound to crop up whenever Hussey is discussed. What if he had managed to play at the international level in his formative years? How would that have affected the final figures? One can only guess.
However, one thing is for certain. There would have been little chance of witnessing the same face of maturity, the perfect spirit of the game and the remarkable sinusoidal curves that his career traced had Mike Hussey entered the Australian side as a young man.
In a way, the late entry of this brilliant cricketer was a gift to cricket, bringing into the game the finished product that could hardly be improved upon, bearing all the traits that characterises the noble game to perfection, fit for the grand epithet of Mr. Cricket.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)