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January 6, 2013
Australia have shored up a place at No. 3 on the ICC's Test rankings as a result of a 3-0 sweep of Sri Lanka. The difficulty their captain Michael Clarke now faces is the team that took them there will not be the one he leads first to India, and then to the Ashes beyond.
Losing Michael Hussey and Ricky Ponting in the space of a single summer, while at the same time grooving a policy of fast-bowler management has made it a draining six Tests for Clarke, and in the wake of the five-wicket victory at the SCG he acknowledged the size of the task ahead. He also admitted to the difficulty of guiding the team while shedding such an enormous amount of experience.
If Clarke was more emotional at the time of Ponting's exit in Perth, he was clearer headed about what Hussey's retirement meant for the tours of India and England - increased difficulty. "Another man down unfortunately," Clarke said. "It's been a tough summer to be honest. It's been nice to have some guys come in and make their debut but it's been tough to see two fantastic players in Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey leave the game.
"We certainly have a tough year ahead, that's for sure. I think on our good days we're very good and can cut it with the best, like the No. 1 team in the world South Africa, but on our poor days there's a lot of areas we need to improve, both individually and as a team. I think what you've seen of the Australian team this summer probably sums up where we're at. We're fighting to get better every day, that's the positive."
Australia's performance in Sydney rather summed up the patchiness of their summer. Making an indifferent start after eminently debatable decisions both in team selection and at the coin toss, Clarke's men wrested back an advantage via the counter-punching of Matthew Wade and then pressured Sri Lanka's batsmen into a series of grievous errors on the third afternoon that ultimately determined the outcome of the match.
"The days we aren't performing as well as we can, whether that be with the ball or with the bat, we're letting ourselves down," Clarke said. "At the moment there's a bit of a gap between very good and not so good but we've got a team that's working very hard. Every day we get out of bed we're trying to get better.
"I certainly can't have a go at the boys. I think the commitment throughout the whole summer has been outstanding - the way we've trained and prepared, the role the support staff have played … We know we've got some work to do but we're up for the challenge."
While Jackson Bird's emergence as a commendably reliable paceman against Sri Lanka was arguably the most significant find of the Tests, Clarke and his fellow selectors will have some other revelations to consider ahead of India. One of the least convenient was the struggle of several batsmen against spin, notably the opener Ed Cowan, and another was the top order's lack of precision when running between the wickets. Shane Watson's future, and the team's balance, is clouded by his reluctance to continue bowling.
Clarke said the spectre of slow bowling on turning Indian pitches was something that would take plenty of skill and application to overcome, particularly now that Hussey has left the scene. "It will be really tough, especially in the second innings on the subcontinent is generally very tough to play spin bowling. I think we're improving," Clarke said. "There are areas we need to continually get better at. Spin bowling is one of those areas. In a couple of months, we're going to be faced with conditions that spin a lot, so there's no better place to get better than on the subcontinent.
"I'm really impressed with the way we finished this summer in the Test format. I was really proud of the way we fought it out against the No.1 Test team in the world. I think we have taken a lot from that series and I think we've shown improvement throughout this series."
The ODI team will be led by George Bailey for the first two matches of the series against Sri Lanka, as Clarke rests a tender hamstring, but he felt sure he would be fit and refreshed in time to return for game three in Brisbane. It will be the next phase of a year in which Clarke has now become more pivotal than ever.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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