Hussey's new approach pays off
Two days gone, and clear themes are starting to emerge in this Ashes series. As in 2005 and 2009, this is shaping up as a battle that will decided by small margins and one or two outstanding individual performances.
At the Gabba on Friday that margin was two inches, the distance that Mike Hussey's first-ball edge fell short of Graeme Swann's grasping fingertips at second slip. The outstanding performance followed on shortly afterwards.
Hussey, on a dreadful trot and seemingly on the brink of losing his hard-fought place in the national side, will resume in the morning 81 not out. On an afternoon when England's bowlers hit back hard after the disappointments of the first day he held Australia's frail middle order together.
If he's still in after lunch on day three, he may be guiding the home side towards a priceless series lead.
A week ago Hussey couldn't remember what a run looked like. Having managed only two tons in his last 51 Test innings and averaging just 26 in his previous six Tests, he was dismissed for an 18-ball duck in a state game against Victoria. Thirty five years old and greying at the temples, he seemed an unlikely candidate for rejuvenation.
Mike Hussey switched to an aggressive approach - and it paid off (Photo PA)
But there was life left in the old dog. In the second innings of that state game he struck an unexpected century, full of attacking shots.
In the nets here in Brisbane he hit, by the reckoning of former Australian opening batsman Michael Slater, "two and a half million balls". Out in the middle, his country in trouble, that application paid crucial dividends.
The usual Hussey big innings is a mix of nudges and tucks, a gradual accumulation that sneaks up on you while your eyes are on the fireworks and flashy stuff elsewhere and leaves you wondering where all the runs came from.
Not this one. From the moment of that early escape he played with uncharacteristic aggression, stepping back to pull through midwicket time and time again, footloose and fancy-free even as the wickets tumbled at the other end.
Thirty eight of his first 40 runs came in boundaries, nine of his 13 fours clouted through the leg side with the loose-limbed liberation of a man secure in his place and certain of his ability.
"The difference between being in form and out of form is your mentality - your technique doesn't change," says former England skipper Michael Vaughan, working here as an expert summariser for Test Match Special.
"When you're struggling, you need the mental toughness to concentrate on the delivery you're facing and nothing else.
"Going on attack is always the way to get out of a bad run of form. You can get pushed into a corner, and the only way out is to play positively. Look at Andrew Strauss in Napier, or Paul Collingwood a few years ago. Ask any player - you'd always rather go down fighting than defending tamely.
"Hussey's game-plan was excellent. He opted to defend off the front foot and score off the back foot, and his shot selection was excellent. He latched onto anything short of a length, played the pull shot and cut exceptionally well, and deserves enormous credit.
"One big partnership could change this game. There hasn't been a hundred partnership in the match yet, but if Hussey and Brad Haddin make one, or Hussey goes on to make a big ton, it could win Australia the match."
Hussey's derring-do pulled his team-mates out of a slide that threatened to waste the advantage won by Peter Siddle's hat-trick heroics on Thursday.
In the last Ashes series over here all the flaws seemed to lie with the tourists. This time, as in 2009 in England, the fascination is coming from watching two closely-matched teams attempting to land killer blows while disguising their own glass jaws.
It produces an utterly absorbing cut-and-thrust during each the day's play and a fluctuating balance of power that could shift several times over the next six weeks.
With Australia 78-0 after 26 overs, the shine gone off the ball and the early grey clouds overhead burnt away by the harsh Queensland sun, the forecast looked ominous for England.
Simon Katich was crabbing his way towards a half-century, as effective as he was low on aesthetics, with Shane Watson playing with his usual muscular simplicity. James Anderson had bowled 10 overs without taking a wicket, Broad's aggression had been wasted on a little too much show-pony short-pitched stuff and Finn was struggling to stay on his line.
Even when Watson went, poking a little nibbler to Strauss at slip, the sight of Ricky Ponting bustling to the wicket to huge cheers from the bellicose local patrons served only to dampen English spirits.
The Australian captain has scored centuries in the first Tests in three of the last four Ashes series, and has an average of 66 at this ground. Against England that climbs to 100.
Of all 22 men involved in this match, Ponting is the sole all-time great, a player classy enough to feature in any Australian Ashes XI of any era. At the same time, even the legends lose their lustre at some stage.
The once-indomitable Ponting is now 23 days short of his 36th birthday. His Test average over the last 12 months has dropped to 41, respectable enough for most number threes but well down on his career figure of 54.
The talk has been all of how he's increasingly vulnerable on the pull, always one of the most destructive weapons in his armoury, or to the old favourite of full and fast early on. That he was strangled out, flicking an innocuous leg-side loosener from Anderson straight into Prior's embrace behind the timbers, was both an unexpected bonus and the catalyst for England's best spell of the series so far.
When Katich was brilliantly caught and bowled by Finn shortly afterwards, Australia had lost three wickets for 22 runs and while Hussey helped them avoid adding another entry to the list of recent inauspicious collapses (126-3 to 223 all out in Bangalore; 87-0 to 192 in Mohali; 171-2 to 253 at Lord's against Pakistan) their worry-lines were still visible elsewhere.
Michael Clarke looked a shadow of his best, taking 15 balls to get off the mark. When he fell in Finn's excellent second spell, his nine scratchy runs had required 50 deliveries.
Marcus North, Mr Vegas Or Bust, went even quicker. He's now been out for single figures in half his 20 Test matches.
Pick of England's bowlers in that clatter of afternoon wickets was Anderson -match figures of 1-195 here four years ago - probing relentlessly on off stump and just outside, squeezing hope from unhelpful conditions. Finn wasn't far behind, recovering from that poor start to punch a hole through the Aussie line-up. For a 21-year-old in his first Ashes Test, it was a heartening display.
Swann had it harder. Australia went after him from the off, well aware how pivotal his frugality is to the balance of England's attack. His first four overs cost 34 runs. Undaunted, he fought back to take North's wicket for the fourth time in six Tests and found turn where none could be expected. His next six overs went for just four.
"Australia will aim to play more positively against Swann," believes Vaughan. "It was a shame he dropped it a little short - he probably wasn't at his best. But the longer he bowled the more he got used to the pace of the wicket, gave the ball more air and got more drift.
"I do think he could be a real threat to Australia in the second innings, batting second on this pitch. To spin it as much as he did on the second day at the Gabba is unheard of.
"But England have to give him some runs to bowl at. Give him 200 to play with an England have an excellent chance."