Clarke injury raises unanswerable question
Australian cricket's unanswerable question - that of who will succeed Michael Clarke - has suddenly become one the national selectors must ponder ahead of the Boxing Day Test after the captain was forced to retire hurt with a hamstring injury on day four in Hobart.
Clarke had made a rapid-fire 57 when he complained of tightness in his right hamstring, forcing the team physio Alex Kountouris to make a quick dash onto the field for consultation before it was decided that Australia's leader could not continue. His exit contributed to the hosts' loss of 9 for 146 after the openers Ed Cowan and David Warner added 132. Clarke limped visibly when he led the team out for the start of the fourth innings, underlining the precarious state of his fitness for Melbourne.
The sight of Clarke being unable to continue batting, or resume his innings when Australia were nine wickets down, was a truly unsettling sight for the team. At 31, Clarke has been described as the one sure thing in Australian cricket, and his loss to injury for any period of time is the most telling blow the team could suffer.
In recent times the selection panel has shied away from facing the issue of succession, reasoning that no-one at present is ready to accept the responsibilities of the job or the expectations that it might be headed in their direction. Prior to Ricky Ponting's retirement he was hinted at by the national selector John Inverarity as the man most likely to substitute as captain. Shane Watson, meanwhile, is the deputy and has led Australia at limited-overs level, but his batting displays since returning to the team have not exactly inspired confidence.
Australia's coach Mickey Arthur told ESPNcricinfo earlier this summer that the panel was not yet sure that Clarke's eventual successor was even a member of the current Test team. Concerns about a leadership vacuum at the top of Australian cricket were such that the Tasmanian captain George Bailey was parachuted in as Twenty20 captain earlier this year.
"We have massive discussions, as a panel we continually talk about that," Arthur said. "We're trying to pick leaders, we're looking for leaders, and we do that as a selection panel all the time under John. We have those discussions. When we're confident that we have a guy who has A cemented his place in the team and B done well enough to warrant being brought into the fold as a possible successor to Michael [we will].
"I know one of Michael's goals is he doesn't want to leave it hanging. He wants to blood the next Australian captain, but right at the minute we're sitting with a team of players that are still trying to cement their place in international cricket, so you wouldn't want to give them the burden of appointing anybody as the heir apparent to the captaincy."
Last summer David Warner was elevated to be ODI deputy when Clarke also suffered a hamstring strain, but speculation and confusion about whether that made him an early heir apparent to other leadership roles had the panel reconsider the role of vice-captain at the start of this summer. When Watson was unavailable for the first two Tests against South Africa, no deputy was named, with the understanding that Ponting would lead should Clarke be indisposed.
"Last season we just looked at certain options," Arthur said. "It is very clear to us at the moment that we don't want to give anybody that extra responsibility, it's a tough enough game as it is, you don't want to be giving the players any more responsibility. Once they've cemented their place in the side and are going well and have shown a massive amount of leadership qualities around the group, then we can look to perhaps talk about succession planning in that area.
"It is probably just a little premature at the moment, but it is something we do consistently talk about. We want to be really certain. The vice-captain at the moment is Shane Watson and we haven't looked past that at this stage."
The other short-term option to lead the team on Boxing Day would be the 37-year-old Michael Hussey. He has led Australia four times previously, all in ODIs around the 2006-07 season, and was a losing captain on each occasion.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here