Clarke without answers on the worst of days
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