When Cricket Australia announces their Test squad for their tour of India on Thursday, for the first time in 79 Tests it will not include the familiar name of Mike Hussey.
It has now been a month since Hussey decided to step away from the international spotlight, and the search for his predecessor is still no closer to its conclusion.
When Hussey announced his retirement from all forms of international cricket on Saturday 29th December, it came from nowhere. Typical of the man, he had wanted to announce his retirement on a quite note. He has after all gone about his career for Australia in a low key manner and with minimum fuss.
The day he announced his retirement, the cricketing public were mourning the loss of Channel 9 broadcaster Tony Greig and Hussey’s retirement took second fiddle.
He celebrated his final Test match against the Sri Lankan’s at the SCG with an unbeaten second innings contribution of 27, leading Australia home with a typically calm and efficient batting display.
Hussey’s decision to retire certainly came as an unwanted surprise to the Australian selectors – who would have thought that they would be able to rely on his availability until at least the end of 2013.
Australia’s 2013 schedule is no doubt their most challenging in recent years. A four-Test tour of India is followed by a summer in England, firstly with the Champions Trophy and secondly with a hugely important five-match Ashes series. Whilst the winter sees them host England in five more Ashes Test matches.
The year will be a test of both Australia’s physical and mental capabilities, without Hussey’s experience, their task becomes much more difficult.
With Ricky Ponting having also retired recently, the Aussie middle order is as thin as it has been since Allan Border’s side in the mid-eighties.
Hussey leaves the game with 6,235 runs at 51.52 with 19 Test hundreds to his name – certainly big shoes to fill, especially considering that in 2012 he averaged 59.86 with the bat, unlike Ponting, Hussey ended his career at the top of his game. He has left people asking: “Why did you retire” instead of “Why didn’t you retire.”
While Hussey leaves the game as a modern day great, the search for his replacement is a concern for the Australians especially with such a huge year ahead of them.
They must also decide whether they are going to continue with playing six frontline batsmen or if they are willing to push up Matthew Wade to bat in Hussey’s number six spot and pick an allrounder at number seven.
Another problem they have faced is the scheduling of the Australian summer. Until the past week, none of the potential replacements for Hussey have played any form of first-class cricket since the end of November as the Big Bash League took centre stage during the past two months.
With the tour of India coming up in the next month, the most first-class cricket any player will play will be limited to just a couple of matches. The timing of the ODI series with the West Indies also doesn’t help and word is that the Australians will pull out some of their players half way through that series so that they can prepare for the Indian series.
With Philip Hughes seemingly already having cemented his place as Ponting’s replacement for the near future, I look at Australia’s potential replacements for Hussey in the Test side.
Glenn Maxwell (24, Victoria) – The 24-year-old off-spinning allrounder was called into the Australian Test squad as cover for Shane Watson for the final Test of the recently concluded Sri Lankan series, but was over looked as the Aussies went in with a five-man bowling attack.
Maxwell has a career first-class average of 42 for Victoria but has struggled in his handful of opportunities in Sheffield Shield cricket this season averaging just over 30, doubts certainly remain over his abilities with the bat in the longer form of the game, one such problem arises with his State often batting him as low as number 8.
One thing that has kept the selectors keen is his so-called ‘X-factor’ – a trait which led to him winning both his ODI and T20I debuts in 2012 after fine form with Hampshire in the English T20 competition.
Maxwell’s batting remains fragile in first-class cricket, and his ability with the ball alone shouldn’t warrant him a place on the tour to India, where he could end up looking out of the depth as Cameron White did on Australia’s 2008 tour of India.
Usman Khawaja (26, Queensland) – Picked as many people’s favourite to fill the void left by Hussey, the Pakistani-born left-hander has already had a taste of Test cricket after making his debut in the final Ashes Test of the 10/11 series. A run of six Test matches during 2011 was followed with Khawaja being dropped after a poor series against New Zealand.
The disappointment of being dropped clearly hurt Khawaja and he made the decision to play county cricket for Derbyshire during the 2012 season. His returns for the East Midland’s side were solid if not spectacular and he still found himself looking in from the outside in terms of Test selection. But like Hughes he decided to leave New South Wales in search of better batting wickets and started the Shield season playing for Queensland.
The change of scenery has clearly had a positive effect on his game as he has racked up 438 runs at 39.81 in tough batting conditions, none more so than his superb 138 against Tasmania in Hobart, where no one else went past 49 in the match.
Doubts remain over his ability to rotate the strike often enough but it’s likely that Khawaja will see some playing time for Australia’s Test side over the course of the year. A big opportunity waits for him to improve on his substandard Test batting average of a touch under 30.
Alex Doolan (27, Tasmania) – Probably the most deserving batsman to replace Hussey after fine run of scores for both Tasmania and Australia A this season have led to ‘Dools’ scoring a superb 570 runs first-class from six matches at an average of 81.42.
This included an excellent unbeaten 161 against a touring South African attack that compromised of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir. Despite his hundred against the Proteas, Doolan was over looked for the vacant number three Test spot in favour of Rob Quiney, who had scored 85 in the same innings.
Doolan has the experience of having played 37 first-class matches since his debut four years ago and also has the best recent Shield form of any of the candidates.
George Bailey (30, Tasmania) – Doolan’s state captain at Tasmania and Australia’s current T20 skipper, Bailey is on the selectors radar because of his strong leadership skills rather than his extraordinary first-class form.
After been named Australia’s T20 captain in 2011-12, despite not having played for his country in the format, his form over the past few years has been steady. To date he has averaged close to 40 in his 17 ODI’s and 29 in his 13 T20I’s, although his first-class form so far this season has been underwhelming with just 169 runs in six innings.
The selectors certainly like the look of what Bailey can offer in the shorter forms – But is his technique up to the spinning wickets of India or the green tops in England? A productive early season spell as captain of Hampshire could help his cause for Ashes selection.
Brad Haddin (35, New South Wales) – The veteran glovesman can certainly count himself unlucky to currently be out of the Australian Test set-up, but his leadership experience and 2012-13 form should ensure he makes the trips to India and England.
After scoring 2257 runs in 43 Tests as wicketkeeper between 2008-2012, Haddin relinquished the gloves to Matthew Wade after making himself unavailable for last year’s Test series of the West Indies. Such has been Wade’s form since then that the only way Haddin would secure a return to the side would be as a frontline batsman.
Given Haddin’s recent form in Shield cricket (6 innings, 337 runs at 67.40) and his standing as second only to Michael Clarke in his ability to play spin bowling, he should make the trip to India. Likewise with his experience of keeping in England and Wade’s lack of, he should make the tour as back-up keeper.
Joe Burns (23, Queensland) – A left field choice and the youngest of the potential Hussey replacements, the 23-year-old has enjoyed a fine season for the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash, although he remains a work in progress in Shield cricket.
A confident striker of the ball, Burns only made his first-class debut two years ago but has since become a fixture in the Queensland top order as well as making his Australia A debut in England last June.
Although his Shield form this season has been disappointing, he has averaged just 30.50 compared with his career average of 42.28, he remains a talented cricketer and it’s surely only a matter of time before he is given his chance to impress on the International stage.
Steven Smith (23, New South Wales) – Like Burns, Smith is also just 23, but unlike the Queenslander, Smith has already had international experience with 33 ODI’s and five Tests to his name.
Smith made his Test debut almost three years ago against Pakistan in England after he was seen as a legspinning-allrounder, but has since played just five Tests and averages a less than appealing 28.77 with the bat and 73.33 with the ball.
His legspin has been shown up at Test level and the fact that he rarely gets the ball in Shield cricket suggests he is now seen as a batsman foremost.
He has certainly shown promise with the bat in recent years and reports are out that he is on the verge of selection for the Indian tour, this will more than likely be as a back-up batsmen though and not as a direct replacement for Hussey.
In eight innings for New South Wales this season he has scored 296 runs at 37. Despite his inability to turn starts into hundreds, he remains a player the selectors have invested a lot of time into and it won’t be long until they try and find a way to reintroduce him into the set-up.
With the Australian selectors set to name a 17-strong squad for the tour of India it remains to be seen as to who will step in and replace the dependable Hussey or if they will score heavily enough in India to book their place for the back-to-back Ashes series later in the year.