Australia news November 18, 2014

Michael Clarke still polling well

Which one of them will be leading Australia for the India Tests? © Getty Images

In Australia's political capital, questions of leadership are never far from anyone's mind. Whether it be the dismissal of Gough Whitlam's government by the governor-general Sir John Kerr in 1975, Paul Keating's lengthy battle to prise the Prime Ministership from Bob Hawke, or Kevin Rudd's pact of mutually assured destruction with Julia Gillard, challenges, spills and outrages abound through Canberra's history.

So it is somewhat eerie to ponder Australia's captaincy predicament this week. Darren Lehmann noted the irony of stewarding a team with a hamstrung captain in Michael Clarke, an ageing deputy in Brad Haddin, and an ODI stand-in leader in George Bailey who has faced speculation about his place in the team when not subbing in for the first choice. Asked about Canberra's form for leadership tensions, Lehmann laughed.

"That's a good one. I like that. That's the best question so far," he said. "It's fine. There's no spill. Obviously there's a few things going on behind the scenes, we just have to wait and see what happens with Michael in the next few days. In terms of the one-day setup, George is captain for this series and we've got to play well."

Clarke's injury and his likely layoff to find a more lasting remedy for related back and hamstring issues has opened up the captaincy ambitions of more than a few men. Bailey, Haddin, Steven Smith and even Shane Watson have had reason to ponder their captaincy credentials in recent days, as the picture grew as murky as the results from scans on Clarke's hamstring.

Watson, Australia's most recent Test captain other than Clarke, spoke with typical enthusiasm about the thought of leading the team once more, following his somewhat incongruous week as helmsman for the Delhi Test against India in 2013 - mere days after he was suspended from the Mohali Test for failing to hand in a homework assignment on time.

"I wouldn't say no, that's for sure," Watson said. "The time I've had the privilege of captaining Australia was certainly incredible to have that opportunity. It was an honour to be able to do it. But there's a few people that are well in front of me to get the captaincy, so my most important thing is to try and be part of that first Test team in Brisbane."

While the team performance manager Pat Howard has made it clear that he will be recommending Haddin to replace Clarke in the likely event of his absence from the first Test in Brisbane, the likes of Bailey and Smith also have some stake in the matter. The former has become a far more regular ODI leader in direction proportion to Clarke's increasing physical frailty, earning plaudits for his temperament and an ability to segue between lively batsman and locum leader.

In Smith's case, the future favours his eventual succession, and it was no less an authority than the former captain and now Cricket Australia board member Mark Taylor who questioned the 25-year-old on his leadership ambitions in Perth. After a respectful nod to the pending fitness of both Clarke and Haddin, Smith allowed himself to ponder.

"If those two aren't there they've got to make a decision and if they decide I'm the person to be in charge to lead that first Test I'd be comfortable doing it and hopefully I'd be able to do a good job as well," Smith told Taylor. "I've had a few experiences in captaining with NSW and the Sixers and think I've done quite a good job with those as well. So it is something that I do enjoy doing, and if I do get the opportunity to do that one day it'll be a dream come true."

Dreams and ambitions are invariably given more life in a vacuum, and Clarke's uncertain status will allow plenty of thoughts to turn even briefly to leadership. Watson noted that the ODI team had been forced into getting accustomed to operating without Clarke for several years, from the 2012 West Indies tour and the 2013 Champions Trophy to the India trip later the same year that preluded the Ashes.

"Unfortunately for Michael it has happened a couple of times within the one-day squad over the last year or so," Watson said. "Even the Champions Trophy in England, we also had India last October-November when Michael wasn't over there as well. George is getting some good experience about filling in and he's doing a great job. George is an incredible guy. He knows the game very well and he's leading very well. The group's sort of had to get used to it a little bit."

But Watson also delivered perhaps the most reassuring words Clarke has heard all week, illustrating how in recent times the pair's often fractious relationship has healed. In this there was evidence that Clarke had learned a thing or two over the course of his captaincy, and that it would be wasteful to have physical infirmity prevent him from making use of those lessons.

"If he's fit it'll be a great thing," Watson said. "He's got an incredible record as a captain and a player as well. Everyone's preference is for Michael to be captain and fully fir for that first Test. Certainly as a leader it'd leave a hole, but as a player as well. Whoever would get an opportunity would have the skill set to try and make up for that void that Michael would leave. But everyone's got their fingers crossed everything will be right for Michael."

Clarke, then, is still polling strongly.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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