Resourceful Clarke comes up short
A winning record, it is often said, does not necessarily make a captain great. Ricky Ponting has won more Test matches than any other captain in the history of the game, yet opinions on his leadership of Australia are mixed. Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards were similarly considered fine players and strong leaders, but their tactical ability was often called into question because of how a rich supply of West Indies fast bowlers and batsmen meant they were seldom short of options. By contrast, Stephen Fleming is regarded as a great leader of New Zealand, for he extracted the very most he could from a modest talent base.
Michael Clarke has greater resources at his disposal than Fleming, but considerably less than Lloyd and Richards. Certainly he has less than Ponting enjoyed in the first half of his captaincy. As a result, Clarke will have numerous days as captain of Australia where his own contribution, be it in the field or with the bat, will not be enough to guide his team to victory. At Lord's in Australia's first encounter with England since 2010-11, Clarke experienced one of those days. He did most things right in the field, and performed ably with the bat, but walked off at dusk with a 0-1 deficit to his opposite number Alastair Cook.
Before the match Clarke had said the major improvement in his side since the last Ashes was in work ethic, their willingness to train hard for a common goal. Asked whether the team's skills had improved he was less sure. "With hard work and a lot of training you hope your skills improve," he said. "I guess we'll see, over the next couple of weeks, how we go when we're under pressure against a very good and confident one-day team."
It turned out at Lord's that Australia's skills and composure were not yet at the level required to better England. The visitors may be No. 1 in the ICC's ODI rankings but it was the hosts who showed greater presence of mind at the important moments, and better skills at the right times. Eoin Morgan's late-innings hitting took the target beyond Clarke's ideal, then piercing spells by James Anderson and Tim Bresnan destabilised the chase. They were helped by Clarke's involvement in a run-out just when it seemed he and Matthew Wade might threaten the target, one of only two miscalculations Clarke could be said to have made across the day.
Clarke's captaincy for the majority of England's innings was admirably alert and typically assertive. He favoured slips and catching men long after the balls lost their shine, posted three men in the arc between gully and point to restrict Jonathan Trott's pet cut shot, and worked his angles neatly to limit the number of boundaries that can flow quickly at Lord's if field placings are imprecise.
His choice of bowlers was also shrewd, calling on Pat Cummins after one rain break for instance, then calling on Xavier Doherty for the first over following the conclusion of the batting Powerplay - a gambit for which he was rewarded with Trott's wicket. As a batsman Clarke is known for capitalising on the drifting nature of an ODI's middle overs, pushing singles here and there. But as a fielding captain he does not allow himself to be lulled, constantly seeking wickets and challenging the batsmen to hit through or over his field settings.
It was only towards the end of the innings, as Morgan tilted the match with a series of brazen blows that reaped 48 runs from the final four overs, that Clarke briefly resembled a more ordinary one-day captain. The bowlers did not let Clarke down entirely, as loose deliveries were few and each man generally bowled to his field. But they did not find an extra gear to match that reached by Morgan, and left a batting line-up of middling quality with about 20 more runs to chase than they would have preferred on a day when cloud and cold aided the England attack. With time, that gear will be found more often, as bowlers like Cummins, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc develop, but it was absent here.
Australia's reply began soundly enough, David Warner showing typical spunk in his first international innings on English soil, and the No. 3 George Bailey aiding him in a useful partnership, though the Tasmania captain remains a somewhat optimistic choice at first wicket down. Clarke came to the crease with the task still in hand, and it would never slip away so long as he was there. However David Hussey and Steve Smith did not do enough to help him in the middle order, and were to be put in the shade by the combative Wade.
As captain, Clarke is responsible for Australia's batting order, and he appears to have erred by placing Smith ahead of Wade, who already has one match-winning Test innings to his credit. Smith's place in the Australia team remains hazily developmental, the one blind spot in the "role clarity" espoused by Clarke and the coach Mickey Arthur. He is a batsman and legspinner, but seldom bowls, and so far has not looked capable of holding his place with the bat alone. To play him at No. 6, ahead of Wade, was Clarke's second misstep, one that can be argued to have been made as much at the selection table as in the dressing room.
Brett Lee's bold rearguard came up short, leaving Clarke with a few areas to ponder ahead of Sunday's second match at The Oval. Where should Smith and Wade bat? How might his bowling attack be better balanced to cope with a late-innings acceleration? And what can be done to prevent Anderson and Bresnan, those familiar Ashes tormenters, from making the pivotal breaks? Clarke did little to detract from his growing reputation for agile captaincy at Lord's, but to win this series his team will need to be better.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here