England's Ashes tilt depends on the early dismissal of Australia's in-form batsman, writes Ahmed Rizvi.
Mike Hussey stands in England's way
For the past decade, bowling with the new ball against Australia must have seemed like getting into the ring against Muhammad Ali and George Foreman for a handicap bout.
Justin Langer, the nuggety opening batsman, was the Ali, floating at the crease and giving nightmares to the likes of Shoaib Akhtar with his crisp cut shots and fluent drives; Matthew Hayden, his strapping opening partner, was the Foreman, burly and audacious, and aptly described as an opening batsman with a fast bowler's temperament.
Langer and Hayden opened together for Australia in 113 innings and scored 5,655 runs alongside each other, which is the second-best aggregate for an opening pair behind the West Indies vaunted pair of Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes who made 6,482 runs between them.
The last time they batted together, three years ago, Australia blitzed to their first 5-0 whitewash in Ashes history since 1921. Langer and Hayden scored 272 runs together in that romp, yet, on the face of it, Australia's current openers seems to be performing better with 200 runs for the opening wicket from the first three Tests.
Most of those runs have, however, come from the blade of Shane Watson (293). Simon Katich managed 97 runs from four innings in Brisbane and Adelaide, while Phillip Hughes had scores of two and 12 at Perth.
Langer, Australia's batting coach now, is working hard with Hughes to get the southpaw out of his slump and iron out a few technical flaws, but his bigger worry could be the team's fragile middle-order, bar the prolific Michael Hussey.
Ricky Ponting, the captain, has scored 83 runs (10 and 51; 0 and nine; 12 and one) in six innings, while his deputy, Michael Clarke, has performed only slightly better with 115 (nine; two and 80; four and 20).
There has not been a single three-figure score from Australia's top-four; Watson's 95 in the second innings of the third Test is the closest to the mark. By contrast, each of England's top four have scored a century, with opener Alastair Cook getting two, including a double.
The aggregate for England's top four stands at 1,223 runs, which is more than double of Australia's corresponding figures: 602. And yet, the series is level at 1-1.
The home fans have Hussey to thank for that. Batting from No 5, usually with the tail, he has managed to score 517 runs at an average of 103. The 35-year-old has become the first batsman to record six successive Ashes fifties.
The tragedy for England is, he might not have made the Ashes squad after a string of failures, but for a career-saving 118 in a domestic match just before the Australia squad was announced. He sealed his place with a 195 in the first Test and has been "batting like Brian Lara", in Langer's words, since.
"If you want to know how to bat, watch him bat in this innings [his 116 in the second innings at Perth]," said Geoffrey Boycott, the former England opener and now forthright commentator.
Hussey's "magnificent" form has left England pondering. Pundits have been musing on different ways, while headlines like 'How do you get Mike Hussey out' have dominated their sport pages.
Finding an answer to that will surely determine England's quest for Ashes glory. For the rest, their plans have been working to perfection. Clarke has been getting no room to drive, Hughes has been waiting for short deliveries that never arrive and Ponting, top-scorer in 2007 series with 576 runs, looks desperately out of form. Reflexes are deserting him and to add to his woes, he has a broken finger now, which despite all the bluster and bravado, will hinder his performance in the middle.
Ponting is not the same man who batted with a bloodied cheek in the Ashes of 2005 and Steve Smith, batting at No 6, looks out of his depth.
The last time England were at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Andrew Symonds came in at the fall of the fourth wicket and he rescued the hosts from a wobbly 84 for five with his maiden Test century.
He will be out somewhere in the sea, indulging in his passion for fishing, when the Boxing Day Test starts in front of record crowds tomorrow. No one from England will be missing him. Another 35-year-old Aussie has been enough of a menace for them.