Bailey's leadership riddle
George Bailey will have no qualms about leading Australia his own way at the World Cup, should Michael Clarke fail to make the tight deadline he has been set by the national selectors to prove his fitness for the tournament.
Over the past two years Bailey has become accustomed to his recurring commission as stand-in leader, though never granted the opportunity to make the team his own. The worst of this arrangement was seen during the 2013 Champions Trophy in England, when Bailey did not know day to day whether Clarke would return from back trouble, and Australia were eliminated amid the David Warner Walkabout debacle.
Bailey remembered those weeks with something of a grimace, but felt the team had evolved considerably in the 18 months since. Even as Clarke batted for 15 minutes at the SCG on Thursday as a prelude to spending time with the team to continue his rehabilitation efforts, Bailey said he would be confident of establishing his own stamp on the role should the full-time leader be ruled out.
"I think the regularity of it has probably made it easier than what it would be," Bailey said of his walk-on role. "Unfortunately it has happened quite a bit over the last 12 months. It is something that we have been used to as a team, having to deal with not having a player like Michael in the side. I think we have responded pretty well when that has been the case. I think our record speaks for itself. I am used to it, I guess.
"We have a really strong senior group. Got a lot of guys who have played a lot of one-day cricket together. So in terms of the way we like to play, the structure around our tactics and I guess the general team ethos, we are well drilled. I am very comfortable with how that is going. I think the team is very comfortable with how that is going."
In contrast the the Champions Trophy, in which a timid opening loss to England at Edgbaston then a wash-out against New Zealand left Australia all but out of contention entering their third and final pool match against Sri Lanka, the hosts have plenty of time to find their rhythm. The triangular series and then a relatively leisurely schedule of group matches will allow them to re-establish the aggressive brand they have pursued in all formats under the coaching of Darren Lehmann. Bailey said the summer's structure but also the team's mindset made for a considerable change from 2013.
"In terms of the structure of the event, I think there is none tougher than that," Bailey said. "That became a knockout event very, very quickly, the way the weather was in that tournament for us. It has been a long time. I think we had a little period there where we went away from playing good one-day cricket or one-day cricket that is synonymous with the way Australia play, so it's been a really good process and a good sort of timeline for the way we have sort of come back playing some really aggressive, exciting cricket.
"I think the way we play cricket makes people want to watch. That's been pleasing, hopefully looking back, we had a lot of guys who were pretty young in that tournament as well, so there's a few familiar faces who are still about for here who now have 30-40 games extra under their belt. So all that experience holds us in pretty good stead, I reckon."
One of the elements of World Cup play that teams must learn to deal with is a schedule unlike anything else they play, including this triangular series. Matches are often separated by gaps of four or five days, unusually ample downtime that can make it hard for a team to maintain momentum. But when the quarter-finals arrive, the knockout format means sharpness is mandatory.
"We will just be looking to play as well as we can and get our confidence up and get our structures right in terms of how we want to play, make sure that we are approaching each game with the same sort of consistency," Bailey said. "Boring stuff but in terms of getting our process right for going into a tournament where you have quite a break between games and building up towards what becomes a knockout phase.
"In that regard, we are actually approaching it as a very clichéd one game at a time with the tri-series, try not to look too far ahead. But hopefully, if we are playing as well as we can, then that will be putting the other two teams on the back foot."
There is one possible twist to Bailey's leadership role this tournament. If Clarke is injured he will be captain, but should room need to be found for Clarke's return, Bailey may yet find himself dropped from the team altogether, given the prodigious run of form found recently by Steven Smith. Bailey had an exceptionally strong 2013 with the bat but has tailed off more recently - in November against South Africa his only score of note, in Perth, was pockmarked by several dropped catches.
"With a squad of 15, that's absolutely the case," Bailey said when asked about the potential for him to be captain and spectator within the same tournament. "We have probably more captains in the side at the moment than you can poke a stick at, which is a wonderful position to be in. Every person who is playing, regardless of any other positions, will just be looking to perform to make the case for retaining them within the XI pretty compelling."
As for how Bailey would respond to that pressure, he did not quite have an answer yet. "I am not sure," Bailey said. "I'll tell you in three weeks."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig