England v Australia, 3rd Test, Edgbaston July 28, 2009

Australia's Clark conundrum

Mitchell Johnson, it seems, has retained the faith of Ricky Ponting, all but ensuring that the tourists must look elsewhere within their line-up if they are to accommodate the ever-reliable Stuart Clark for the third Test

Ten days of speculation, debate and general gum-flapping over Mitchell Johnson's selection prospects could amount to nothing. The embattled paceman is favoured to retain his place in the side for the third Test at Edgbaston, increasing the likelihood that the tourists will field a line-up similar, if not identical, to that which slumped to a 115-run defeat at Lord's last week.

With Australia set to gamble on Johnson's wicket-taking potential, Stuart Clark looms as the most contentious selection issue ahead of the coin toss on Thursday. Australia have desperately missed Clark's unerring accuracy and steady temperament in the first two Ashes Tests, and the veteran paceman advanced his case for selection at Edgbaston with a solid return of 4 for 74 from 23 overs in the three-day tour match against Northamptonshire.

Given the contrasting nature of Johnson's performance at Wantage Road (1 for 107 from 18.1 overs), many assumed Clark would enter the starting XI for the third Test in a straight-swap for the errant left-hander. But Johnson, it seems, has retained the faith of Ricky Ponting and Jamie Cox, Australia's on-duty selector, all but ensuring that the tourists must look elsewhere within their line-up if they are to accommodate Clark.

Of all the Australia bowlers in this series, Peter Siddle has performed the most modestly, and, like Johnson, has been unable to settle upon a consistent line. Siddle, though, has many influential supporters in the Australian hierarchy - not least Ponting and Tim Nielsen - who covet the raw aggression and intimidation he brings to the attack. He will be difficult to dislodge, even if raw figures (seven wickets at 44.57) suggest he is the most likely to make way.

"I thought Stuart bowled particularly well last week at Northants," Ponting said. " Siddle showed some good improvement and good signs down in Northampton as well. As far as a pecking order is concerned, you'll work that out tomorrow when we pick our XI."

Ben Hilfenhaus is presumably secure, given his nine wickets and general mastery of outswing, but the fate of the man who sits atop the series wicket-taking list alongside him, Nathan Hauritz, is less certain. If current weather forecasts prove accurate, and rain severely disrupts proceedings from Thursday, an attritional spinner armed with a greasy ball would be an unlikely candidate to provide Australia with the wicket-taking impetus needed to force their way back into this series.

"We've checked the stats for county games this season and spinners are averaging about 60 or 70 per wicket," Ponting told the Australian on Monday. "The numbers aren't compelling."

Ponting revised his position on spin bowlers on Wednesday, noting with surprise the dryness of the Edgbaston pitch and predicting that both sides would play at least one slow bowler each. Whether Ponting feels Marcus North fits the job description, as he did for the first two Tests in South Africa, will remain a mystery until the coin toss.

Should Hauritz be omitted, the murmurs surrounding North's place in the XI would almost certainly cease. The strong form of Shane Watson and Andrew McDonald at Wantage Road prompted discussion as to whether North's position at No. 6 could be under threat, but his part-time spin - not to mention his unbeaten 125 in Cardiff - would provide Ponting with variation and over-rate protection at Edgbaston.

Of course, there remains the very real possibility that Australia ignore the aforementioned selection permutations and plough on with the same attack from Lord's and Cardiff. That would represent either a tremendous gamble or complete obstinacy, depending on your viewpoint, after Australia's lacklustre performance in the second Test, and another backhander to the dependable Clark.

Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Martin on July 30, 2009, 11:39 GMT

    I can understand why Australia won't drop Johnson. He has a great record, provides variety, might hit form at any moment and scores important runs. But Clark is not far off McGrath quality and should come in, at the expense of Siddle.

    Until Johnson returns to form Oz need a fifth genuine bowler, so Watson has to come in. I wouldn't open with him and I wouldn't move Hussey when in moderate form, so I'd move North up to open, move Clarke up to 5 and slot Watson in at 6.

  • Alex on July 30, 2009, 7:40 GMT

    Everybody knows Mitchell Johnson will not get dropped, everybody knows Peter Siddle will not get dropped. Ben Hilfenhaus is by far and away the best of the bowlers in the series including English players, and would be taking 6 and 7 wicket hauls if the other bowlers could keep it tight. Mcdonald in, Hauritz out. Harsh I know but he would work well with hilfy. Hughes out, Watson in is a good move. Watson is a good all rounder who could be a breath of fresh air. But I would have preffered watson in, North out.

  • SRINI on July 30, 2009, 2:42 GMT

    Given the weather predictions this Test, this may be effctively a 3 day match. Giving Mitchell Johnson a break to sort out his strategies is the best way out. Clark can fill in very well because MJ is not as fearsome in this series as he was expected to be. If Aus go by the groundsman's prediction they may drop Hauritz and retain MJ.

  • Jim on July 30, 2009, 1:59 GMT

    To GobbleUpCricket who wrote about Stuart Clark, "Indians and SAFs handled him pretty comfortably" … Stuart Clark has played 6 matches against India for 16 wickets from 556 runs averaging 34.75. This includes 3 draws at Adelaide, Bangalore and Delhi … non Seamer wickets, dead, batting wickets. Ignoring those 3 games, Stuart Clark's figures against India would be 14 wickets from 276 runs averaging 19.71 and against South Africa 3 games 20 wickets, 317 runs, 15.86 average. So, I'm not sure what games of cricket you have been watching dear sir. Probably, those same games that Ponting and the Australian selectors watched, which the rest of us missed. If Stuart Clark is again overlooked for the 3rd test and no reason is given for his ommission, then I can no longer be a passionate supporter of Australian cricket.

  • Courtenay on July 29, 2009, 23:43 GMT

    As an Australian I am amazed at Ponting's STUPIDITY in keeping Johnson. The guy is clearly out of form and confidence. Clark seems to have his groove back but he seems destined to carry the drinks - what a waste. I recall reading that an idiot is someone who does the same thing over and over again yet expects a different result. I guess we all know what Ponting and the selectors are.

  • Abraham on July 29, 2009, 22:28 GMT

    Its only fair to give MJ many more chances to prove. And Clark and Watson in the playing 11 ? No way !!! Maybe they should try a batting change and bring in Manou to open in place of Katich. Think I'm crazy to be suggesting so ? Not really. I'm only an English supporter :)

  • Terry on July 29, 2009, 21:45 GMT

    Its 2005 all over again where Hussey wasnt selected and the dismal Gillespie was picked endlessly. To not pick Stuart Clark would be an unbelievable decision. Johnson is shot and thats it and all the talk of retaining the confidence of the coach & captain is desperate wishful thinking. And the decision to leave alternative openers (Jacques, Rogers) and alternative batsmen (particularly Hodge) at home is comng home to roost. Hilditch ..... terrible batsman , worse selector ..... BUT he married well AND he's from NSW.

  • Srivatsan on July 29, 2009, 18:44 GMT

    I've not seen a bowler go consistently above 6 an over in tests (not even in county/Pura cup). Johnson's fundamentals are wrong.. He needs 2-3 months of training from the likes of Mcgrath and Gillespie.

    Yes Clark won't bring in storm of wickets but much neater bowler than Johnson. Bowls wicket to wicket. Rarely goes above 4 an over. Does not bowl ackwardly outside the legs or short outside off.

  • Srivatsan on July 29, 2009, 18:27 GMT

    From day one Johnson has been an overrated bowler. Aussies hold him high as if he is Mcgrath. He's rubbish. The only reason I can see players like Krejza and Clark not playing is favouritism.

    Once you come up with such selection issues it's hard to win series. My prediction 3-0 England (Make it 4-0 if it does not rain in Edgbaston R.I.P).

  • Josh on July 29, 2009, 18:17 GMT

    I'm really up in the air about what the side should be for this test but I think we need some changes. We need more bowling strength but I want Johnson to keep his place cause he is our future attack leader (and current for that matter) , i think clark shold come in for Siddle as eng conditions suit him better. The only problem I have is that McDOnald deserves a place in this team , he was the incumbent at the start of the series and has shown good form with bat and ball - im just not sure where to put him

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