Hussey’s perfect ending

There is a story told about Mike Hussey by Ryan Campbell, a team-mate at Western Australia: Wanneroo, Hussey’s grade club in Perth, had a weekend off and whilst other players headed to the beach for the day, Hussey made the club coach take him to the nets. For the day. The whole day. ‘That’s why I’ll play a couple of games for Australia, and he’ll play a hundred,’ said Campbell.
It was not to be the only time Hussey did that. When playing for Australia ‘A’, coach Allan Border suggested that practice should mimic the intensity of a match-situation. Hussey took him at his word, practising against a bowling machine for two hours in the morning, before lunch; two hours in the afternoon, before a break for tea, and then two hours in the evening. Probably had a warm-down and an ice-bath afterwards, too.
Hussey did not quite play a hundred Tests, having retired after the traditional New Year  Sydney Test  with 79 caps against his name. But in a twelve-month period when other great players with a hundred caps and more retired, or contemplated retirement, none got their timing quite as perfect as Hussey. Ricky Ponting and Rahul Dravid went on a little too long and Sachin Tendulkar has outstayed his welcome; Hussey left the public wanting more.
Professionalism is a sometimes dirty word, but Hussey’s career enshrined the best of it. He was the professionals’ professional, transforming himself through sheer hard work, willpower and determination from a weedy nudger and nurdler at Wanneroo to a link in the chain that joins the champions of the past to the current captain, Michael Clarke, who is burdened now with carrying the torch of greatness in Australian cricket alone.
Tales of Hussey’s work ethic are legend: from the fierce back-yard battles with brother, David; to the Saturday morning sand-dune training sessions under the watchful eye of his father, Ted; to berating Rod Marsh at the Academy for not working the players hard enough (Marsh soon changed that); to the six-hour batting sessions when on the brink of international cricket, to Northamptonshire, where he wore Monty Panesar’s spinning finger raw in lengthy net sessions designed to improve his play against spin. At a time when Australia were on top, Hussey knew that being, in Kipling’s words, first-class of the second-class was never going to be enough.
Humility, honesty and respect for his talent were amongst the reasons, no doubt, why Hussey was given the custodianship on Justin Langer’s retirement of the Australian team song, to be sung after victories at a time of the custodian’s bidding. Ironically, given his current untouchable status, this was a cause of friction in Clarke’s pre-captaincy career, when, after one victory, he wanted to leave the dressing room before it had been sung in order to meet his then girlfriend, Lara Bingle.
It is sometimes forgotten on that occasion that Clarke had actually celebrated in the dressing room until gone 11 p.m. but Hussey chose not to call the song until midnight. The late timing of it gives an insight into Hussey’s motivations for playing, the enjoyment of which was based in no small measure around the special feelings gained from winning in a team environment. A good squash player in his teens, he had given up the game because of its solitary nature.
To outsiders, the singing of a team song might seem cheesy, but within the right environment it can be one of many things that helps bind a team together and encourages customs to continue down through generations. The custodian of the team song is never the captain- Ricky Ponting passed it on to Langer when he took over the captaincy from Steve Waugh- and whilst the man given the honour may not be the leader per se, he embodies the values the team holds dear. If the captain provides moral and tactical leadership, the song-leader might be said to be the team’s heart and soul.
The tradition was started by Rod Marsh, and the custodians who followed have all had something of Marsh’s zeal for the cause. Not always the best player in the team, those who followed Marsh- Border, David Boon, Ian Healy, Ponting, Langer, and then Hussey- all encapsulated the best competitive instincts of Australian cricket in the two decades after Marsh’s retirement.
Candidates of the playing quality of the above are thin on the ground right now in the Australian dressing room, but one assumes that even in the most threadbare period there will be no shortage of players of flinty temperament. Given that Hussey has passed the team song to Nathan Lyon, the outwardly unassuming off-spinner, we must assume he is one. ‘I picked Nathan because he is a man of great character,’ said Hussey last week.
Lyon is a relative unknown here and part of the next generation given scant respect by English cricket followers. Still, Lyon has played in eleven wins in his nineteen games- not a bad win ratio for a team going through severe growing pains and given little chance in the forthcoming consecutive Ashes series. If Clarke’s men have anything like Hussey’s appetite for the game and for  relentless self-improvement they will be no pushovers. ‘I think I know the words,’ said Lyon after Hussey’s tearful farewell.
Christmas was spent a pitching wedge removed from the house of the man who can now claim, in the absence of CMJ, to be the finest ball-by-ball radio commentator of them all, Tony Cozier. Their styles could not be more different: the mellifluous tones of the Caribbean easier on the ear, if anything, than the clipped Oxbridge observations.
That the commentator is not the author of the script, rather the messenger, was understood by both, however, as it is by all good sports broadcasters. No commentator worth his salt wants to become the story, something that happened this week to the excellent football commentator, Jon Champion, courtesy of his employer’s ridiculous decision to apologise for Champion’s use of the word ‘cheat’ in relation to the Liverpool footballer, Luis Suarez.
One man’s fair comment is another man’s insult, but Champion’s long record of fairness and impartiality ought to have been enough for ESPN to let the comment- mistaken though it might have been- go. He would have known that no matter how impeccable his credentials it was not one that the social media sites in Liverpool would have let pass by- and true to form, they have not. It is not as if Champion is a professional agitator or controversialist, but the bile thrown his way would have been illuminating had it not been so predictable.
Cozier reminded me of the time that CMJ inadvertently became the story during Graham Gooch’s tour of West Indies in 1989-90. The occasion was the fourth Test in Bridgetown when Viv Richards appealed for a caught behind that had clearly come off Rob Bailey’s hip. The umpire, Lloyd Barker, gave Bailey out, but only after an interminable delay, following Richards’ extravagant running, finger-wagging appeal.
On the radio, CMJ had this to say: ‘it wasn’t the mistake that was so sad. It was the fact that Lloyd Barker was pressurised into changing his initial decision. If that is gamesmanship or professionalism, then I’m not quite sure what cheating is.’ Barker issued a writ of defamation against both CMJ and the BBC and the Caribbean hummed with editorials and opinion pieces in which CMJ’s comment was debated in a purely racist context.
The remarks rather summed up CMJ’s view of the game: essentially, as his use of the word ‘mistake’ implied, he saw umpires as decent and fair and the criticism is aimed more at a great player who demeaned himself and the game. It was not easy to take on someone of Richards’ stature and it would have been straightforward for CMJ to ignore the issue. But he knew he was on firm ground and he stood his ground, as did his employer. His integrity as a broadcaster demanded no less, as was the case for Champion this week when he made the call as he saw it. It was a shame he was not given the same support.