Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Perth, 2nd day December 1, 2012

Clarke without answers on the worst of days

Michael Clarke had no answers as South Africa raced ahead in the Perth Test, virtually shutting out Australia's hopes of becoming the No. 1 Test side

Late in the afternoon, as Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla were pushing the No.1 Test ranking out of Australia's reach with every flick of their bats, Michael Clarke stood at first slip, turned to his left and looked to Ricky Ponting. If he was after guidance, none was forthcoming. If he wanted divine intervention from a cricketing idol, he was disappointed. Neither Australia's current captain nor his predecessor had any answers. The well of inspiration was dry.

Ponting stood with arms crossed and his face solemn. It was much the same pose he had taken at the same venue four years ago, when Smith, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy wrested away a match that it seemed Australia could not lose by chasing down 414. Many times Ponting the captain had felt the same, a match accelerating like the lure in his beloved greyhound racing, and him with as much chance of catching it as the dogs. Now it was Clarke's turn.

If it was a shame that Australia suffered so torridly during Ponting's last match, it was also a fitting reminder of the challenges of captaincy. For 18 months, nearly everything Clarke the leader has touched has turned to gold. There have been occasional lapses, like Australia's 47 all out in Cape Town last November, and their loss to New Zealand in Hobart the following month. Standing in the cordon at the WACA, Ponting might well have reminded Clarke that this captaincy lark isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Clarke knew first-hand that runs could flow quickly in Perth. Six years ago, he was part of the fastest 150-run partnership in Test history, a stand that sprinted along at 8.10 runs an over as Adam Gilchrist repeatedly launched Monty Panesar nearly into the adjacent Gloucester Park racetrack during a 57-ball hundred. This time, without the same flamboyance but with just as much import, Amla and Smith hurried along at 6.98 an over, third on the list headed by Clarke and Gilchrist.

He was powerless to stop them. Could Peter Siddle have stemmed the flow? Maybe. Would Ben Hilfenhaus have provided a tougher challenge. Perhaps. But that was all academic as Mitchell Starc, in his fifth Test, John Hastings in his first, Mitchell Johnson in his comeback, and anyone else Clarke cared to try struggled to stop the runs. As captain, Clarke's use of the part-timer Michael Hussey has at times seemed ingenious; here, he went for 11 runs in his only over.

They fed Smith's pads and were helpless against Amla, who walked across his stumps and flicked any delivery he liked to leg. But if the Australians bowled wide of off, he was equally happy cutting and square driving. The old WACA rule that batsmen play with a horizontal or vertical bat, but not one at a 45-degree angle, did not seem to apply to him. That's a rule based on the bowlers finding bounce and movement, but here Australia's fast men couldn't produce enough of either.

Clarke was forced into a defensive mindset that he has rarely displayed as captain. Point and square leg were sent back to the fence, slips were moved out and damage limitation seemed to be his priority. Even that was unachievable. There was no spark, apart from two occasions when the 37-year-old Ponting showed the reflexes of a teenager and threw down the stumps, both times finding Smith in his ground by a small margin.

"Feel like jumping off the couch, grabbing the ball and having a bowl for Australia against the South Africans, seriously getting frustrated," Shane Warne tweeted. "Bowlers are rushing, everything is happening in fast forward, needs someone to slow the game down, take their time and be calm."

For half of his captaincy career, Ponting had Warne to hand the ball to if ever situations threatened to swing out of control. Clarke had nobody. Not until Nathan Lyon took a stunning diving catch in the outfield did the partnership end. There are times when fieldsmen in the deep can be catching men, but by this stage they were there as much to prevent runs as anything. It wasn't clear what plan the Australians were bowling to; they just got lucky.

A similar lack of thought afflicted their batting earlier in the day. Matthew Wade, whose counterattacking 68 prevented more of a disaster, tried to slog sweep a Robin Peterson ball that was much too full. Wade walked off the ground hitting himself on the helmet with his bat. "Stupid, stupid," you could almost hear him say to himself. Johnson fell in almost identical fashion. He walked off thumping his bat into his right pad. He must have had the same sentiment.

The top-order men fell to a mixture of good balls and poor strokes. The Dale Steyn ball that caught Clarke's edge was magnificent. At 6 for 45, it wasn't quite Cape Town all over again, but it was bad. By stumps, South Africa were 2 for 230 on a day when Australia lost 8 for 130. Clarke's men have been so good so often, but while they continue to have calamitous days like they have in Perth, and Cape Town, and Hobart, they will find it hard to reach No.1 and stay there. And after this match, Clarke won't even have Ponting there to sympathise with him.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 2, 2012, 5:40 GMT

    OK,lets also give credit where its due-The Aussie top order all got out to great bowling apart from Warner and he got out attacking a good ball anyway.All the other top order guys were worked over and out to defensive strokes.With the batting,Smith and Amla are very tough to bowl to when on song.Both are dominant leg side players and were taking perfectly good deliveries from outside off and scoring to leg.Lft and right hander to boot! They were actually moving across the stumps and hitting the bowlers of their lengths.Its not that the bowling was disastrous-its just that the batting was too good on this occasion as was the S.A bowling earlier on.

  • disco on December 2, 2012, 5:10 GMT

    A good wake up call for Clarke. After the clatter of wickets yesterday, it was inevitable that the bowlers would be on a hiding to nothing.

  • Dummy4 on December 2, 2012, 4:16 GMT

    Australia getting a taste of their own dominance from 10 years ago, I guess nothing can stay at top. I am very happy to see them decline though.

  • will on December 2, 2012, 2:06 GMT

    The turning point in the series was when Pattinson injured his side in Adelaide. From then, Aus failed to threaten and strike with the ball and looked mediocre in Perth. Patto is a seriously good bowler who will take several 100s Test wickets. He is the future of Australian cricket.

    For bowling: Pattinson is the goods, Cummins needs time to truly prove himself and develop but looks promising at best, Starc has potential (as do Faulkner, Hazelwood and McDermott), Lyon is really only a domestic bowler but will do for now. Hilfenhaus is decent and will experience occasional good form, but won't last. Peter Siddle is overrated, simply fills overs and ties down an end - his bowling simply isn't venomous enough to take wickets, break parterships. Patto is aggressive, fast and brave enough to constantly bowl the ball where he sees a wicket (even if he risks going for a boundary). He is the real deal (unlike the other pretenders in the team). Pattinson, Hussey and Clarke ARE the Aus team.

  • Keertu on December 2, 2012, 1:58 GMT

    This just shows there's no clear no.1 team in world cricket now.

  • will on December 2, 2012, 1:54 GMT

    The top order is filled with young, inexperienced and decent domestic players with first-class averages of 40: David Warner and Ed Cowan score the occasional hundred followed a string of low scores, and they rarely form strong or consistent partnerships. Watson has an international average of 35ish, which is unacceptable, and needs to score big runs at 3 or move to 6. Khawaja, Hughes and Quiney are decent first-class players with averages between 35-45 but they aren't 'banging the door down' or proving that they are international batsman (e.g. Hayden, Hussey, Hodge breaking into Test team) - so number 4 will be difficult to replace. Clarke is in a brilliant 'purple patch', which most top players experience, but he will need support and consistent support when form dims. Same for Hussey, who will also need replacing by one of the mediocre first-class players in a year or two when he retires/is dropped. Wade is a good batsman (for keeper) but a complete drop-cricket and sub-stantard keep

  • Dummy4 on December 2, 2012, 1:50 GMT

    Samin you have zero idea what you are talking about. This is a flat track and that always works against Australia. Green tops should have been prepared as that is what would have helped the Aussies. The simple fact is that Australia's bowlers are a poor standard. they cannot bowl any line of length and do very little with the ball as they are used to bowling on green tops in shield. . Australian cricket is easily the poorest standard it has ever been. the fact they are so close to number 1 shows just how weak world cricket currently is.

  • Dummy4 on December 2, 2012, 1:33 GMT

    Boys against men in the 3rd session yesterday, probably very hard to watch for loyal Aussies i'd bet. You can't leave Siddle out, there's no Talisman in the bowling ranks. The only silver lining (and it's very thin)that I can see is that Aus will get a chance to break SA record 4th Inns chase. I fear for day 3 given the ball is a juicy 40ish overs old, and by the time the new ball arrives De Villiers and Du Plessis might be set and on 50+ each themselves.....should be an interesting day's play today. If Australia are not batting before lunch then nothing will save then, if they don't bat until 5pm then good luck chasing down 500.

  • John on December 2, 2012, 0:47 GMT

    Australia had a bad day. South Africa had a good one. It happens. It was only a few days ago that Aus scored 482 on the first day of a test- on that day the roles were reversed. Cricket, thank goodness, isn't predictable.

  • Dummy4 on December 2, 2012, 0:29 GMT

    South Africa has played the game of attrition really well, getting used to the Aussie conditions and getting their batting settled on flat pitches with a bit of luck too. Now that the Aussies are spent they are on the attack, their batting is clicking and the hosts balling is spent! The Australian middle order Clark, Ponting and Company usually don't do so well when the ball is doing a lot and may find them exposed again in the second innings as well.

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