Clarke 50-50, Starc to sit out
Australia's chairman of selectors, John Inverarity, has declared Michael Clarke only had a 50-50 chance of playing the Boxing Day Test and said Mitchell Starc was almost certain to be rested due to his heavy workload. On Sunday, Clarke jogged at half pace on the MCG under the watchful eye of the team physio Alex Kountouris, as he continued his recovery from the hamstring injury that forced him to retire hurt while batting during Australia's win over Sri Lanka in Hobart.
Clarke did not bat at training on Sunday and had his troublesome muscle strapped with an ice-pack while his team-mates worked in the nets in Melbourne's extreme heat. He took part in long discussions with Inverarity and the coach Mickey Arthur, and while Clarke remains in contention to lead the side on Boxing Day, Inverarity said a conservative approach would be taken regarding Clarke's fitness.
"He's travelling optimistically and well. But he's 50-50 as to whether he'll be fit enough to play on Boxing Day," Inverarity said. "He's a very precious asset and I would go low risk. He's always upbeat, he desperately wants to play. But we certainly don't want to push him especially hard in a Test for him to break down."
Shane Watson will captain Australia if Clarke is ruled out, and he would become the 44th man to lead Australia in a Test. It is an elite group that does not include some of Australia's greats - Victor Trumper and Shane Warne, to name just two men who did not captain Australia in Tests - and Watson said he had learnt plenty about leadership while filling in for Clarke during eight one-day internationals earlier this year.
"It's about as big as it gets for an Australian cricketer," Watson said. "There's no doubt if that opportunity arises it certainly would be … an amazing opportunity to think something like that has come along in your life. But I'm trying not to get too far in front of myself at the moment.
"The thing that really stood out to me [in the ODIs] was to trust my gut instinct. Until you captain a side you don't really realise the intuition you've developed over 10 or 11 years of first-class cricket and also being around some of the best players who have ever played for Australia. Intuition really does come to the fore and you're able to do things tactically that you didn't think you had in you."
If Watson leads the side, he will almost certainly be without the left-armer Starc, who is not injured and bowled in the nets on Sunday, but is expected to be rested. At 22, Starc is one of the younger members of Australia's fast-bowling group and after the breakdowns of James Pattinson and Pat Cummins, the selectors are wary of asking too much of Starc, despite the fact that he has taken 14 wickets in the past two Tests.
"He'll either play Melbourne or Sydney, but it would make some sense that he misses this one and plays Sydney rather than goes Hobart and then Melbourne," Inverarity said. "It's about bowling loads. The science behind it is that they've got to build up their bowling loads so the oscillations are not very significant. If they do become reasonably significant, as they have done for Mitchell, then you enter a danger period, a high-risk period."
Should Starc sit out, that would mean a Test debut for the Tasmania fast bowler Jackson Bird, who would join Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Lyon in the attack. The backup batsman in the squad, Usman Khawaja, batted in the nets on Sunday and even sent down a few offspinners, preparing for what will be his first Test in more than a year, if Clarke is ruled out.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here