Clarke's T20 captaincy hangs in the balance
Whichever way you look at it, Michael Clarke's reign as captain of Australia's T20 outfit must be under serious consideration. Let's look at it from a numbers perspective. Since his early days as a flamboyant strokeplayer, he has now modified his technique somewhat which has perhaps made him more reliable in the longer formats but has come at the expense of his strike-rate. His rate of scoring has dropped markedly in the last few years, despite predominantly starting his innings whilst some of the Powerplay overs are available to him. His highest score in a winning cause is just 37, and even that was chasing a mere 75 posted by India at the MCG in 2008.
What's also interesting is that he actually scores faster in games that Australia have lost. His overall strike-rate in losing causes is greater than in winning ones. I wonder how many other top-order players from the stronger teams score faster in games that their team lost. I can understand why lower-order sloggers may end up with that sort of anomaly, often not batting in comfortable victories but swinging blindly when the team is under the kosh.
It's dangerous to surmise too much from that sort of statistic because Clarke could argue that when there is less of a need for him to score quickly (i.e. winning), he eases off the accelerator, but when his team is up against it, he scores faster. His detractors however could counter that by pointing out that his average is almost 5 runs per innings lower in games Australia loses, which is quite a significant difference in a shortened innings.
In ODI cricket, he averages about 50 with the bat in games Australia wins but that drops to 29 when he's on the losing side. That sort of difference is probably consistent with most cricketers, unless they are from teams that lose much more often than they win or if they have a reputation (like Michael Hussey) for being good in a crisis. Actually, even that seems a bit too much of a chasm - I haven't got the time to do a comparison with other cricketers of Clarke's era but I'd be surprised if the gap was as much as 20 runs per innings.
The reason for this drop in scoring rate and boundary-hitting ability is probably part-technique related and partly attributable to a change in mindset. Without pretending to be an expert in the art of batting, just from looking at him on the TV, it seems like he's choking the bat a lot more these days, is a lot more hunched at the point of delivery with an upraised bat and most importantly, he seems to exclusively commit to the front foot. It means that teams can choke him up with the short ball and not being a natural hooker or puller, the boundaries are then that much harder to find.
Even in ODI cricket, I seem to recall him getting out caught at mid-on, mid-off and midwicket, choking that front foot swat that is more like a cross court tennis shot than a genuine pull. By restricting himself to looking for boundaries in the “V”, he's also hitting to the areas that are usually most protected. Unless he can find the beef to take on the boundary riders and clear them comfortably, like David Hussey, who also camps on that front foot, he will often find his hardest hits get picked up by the sweepers. Leaving aside the six hitters, if he needs to find boundaries, he'll probably need to hit the ball with power through point, square leg, midwicket etc. Someone like Mahela Jayawardene or Salman Butt comes to mind - they don't trade in sixes as much as the Chris Gayles and Cameron Whites of this world (to name but a few) but their boundary ratio is much higher than Clarke's.
But what might actually seal Clarke's fate quicker than any statistical analysis or amateur coaching assessment (mine) is history/tradition/custom. You see, it has always been the Australian way to pick the best team first and then find a captain from amongst that lot. Different countries, most notably England, have had different philosophies to this issue, but Australians have always prided themselves on the leader having to earn his place in the team without question. Even reading through accounts of war journals from World War 1 & World War 2, the Australian troops appeared to have less of an inclination to allow their leaders to direct operations from afar. It may just be the romanticism of war writings but you generally get the feel that the soldiers and their leaders would always be in the trenches together.
Clearly, if the Australian selectors are fair dinkum about pure performances and remain true to that long-established tradition, Clarke's future in international T20 cricket must be in severe doubt. I can think of at least one player in each State team whose domestic numbers would seriously challenge Clarke's record, although in fairness to Clarke, he has barely played any T20 cricket at domestic level. This is where not playing IPL might hurt his chances to improve his skills although it might now be the case that his asking price will be much lower at IPL auctions. And if he loses the captaincy, it's hard to see how he can then justify holding his spot on his pure batting numbers alone.
I've long been a fan of the way Clarke conducts himself with dignity and poise, through the Lara Bingle episode and then with his self-effacing comments after the T20 World Cup. Despite that, I must confess that watching Michael Clarke “Mark II” (since he returned to the side after he got dropped) playing limited-overs cricket is no longer the same pleasurable experience as watching the young dasher who debuted in 2003. His Test match batting is still very attractive, as evidenced by his excellent recent record and a couple of sparkling knocks on the 2009 Ashes Tour.
In ODI or T20 cricket though, his method seems to be very formulaic: chipping down the ground for one, nerdling it down to fine leg, pushing to the sweeper cover and occasionally going inside out over extra cover for the boundary. Yes, he bats in that middle period when that is what tends to happen in modern ODI cricket but so do AB De Villiers and Umar Akmal and Kevin Pietersen. When Clarke walks out to bat, I'm not expecting boundaries whereas if Ross Taylor or even Scott Styris for that matter, is at the crease, I may rely on them a bit less but you get the sense that anything might happen.
Clarke will have plenty of time now to put away his T20 strategies and focus on what he does best - playing Test matches. But it's only going to be a matter of time before that question has to be answered. I'm prepared to go out on a limb now and predict that he won't be in Australia's next T20 World Cup squad, as captain or player. Not unless the man can once more become a boy!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane