Australia v India, World Cup 2015, 2nd semi-final, Sydney March 25, 2015

Clarke's crucial leadership test

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Warne helps Australia prepare for spin

Last time Australia played India in a World Cup knockout match, Michael Clarke was not the captain. The 2011 Ahmedabad quarter-final defeat to the hosts and eventual champions had Ricky Ponting in charge, and the team's elimination was the final straw to convince him that he should no longer lead the team.

Ponting had tried his very best to pull Australia through that match, shrugging off weeks of indifferent form and the aftermath of a fractured finger to make a stirring hundred. But Clarke was a harried, uncomfortable figure, very aware of his status as heir apparent three years into an awkward captain-deputy relationship with Ponting. 

Their partnership that day could have taken Australia to a tally beyond India's reach, but Clarke played a skittish innings reflecting his standing as not quite the captain, and not quite the deputy. He had 8 from 19 balls when the left-arm spin of Yuvraj Singh goaded him into a stroke that was both uncharacteristic, and unlikely to result in success. Later that night Ponting led his beaten men from the field with a blank, desolate look on his face. Clarke wore the same mask, but days later would be the smiling new leader at an SCG press conference.

Four years on, and Clarke again occupies an awkward place in the team. He has been out of the dressing room for much of the summer due to injury, and his primacy as the side's leader and chief decision-maker has been largely usurped by the coach Darren Lehmann. By way of reassurance, Clarke's friend and mentor Shane Warne joined the team for their final training session and bowled in the nets. But Warne was not clad in the team gear donned by Steve Waugh in Adelaide, nor by Warne himself in South Africa last year. This looked a unilateral appearance.

So it was not a surprise to hear Clarke's place in the team questioned once again during his pre-match media duty. Clarke listened intently to the question, then tried to bat it away. He did so in the same room where after the pool match victory over Sri Lanka he gave an unprompted critique of some of the less-glowing coverage he had received in recent weeks. It has been an uncomfortably recurring theme of the Cup - no less a voice than Ponting has reckoned Clarke should retire from ODIs at the end of the tournament.

"Everybody's entitled to their own opinion," Clarke said when asked whether his return had disrupted team balance. "I've played over 200 one-dayers now for Australia, and I think my record stacks up against just about anyone. So, yeah, for me it's about making sure I perform with the bat and also as captain of the team."

Perhaps the only thing helping Clarke ensure he does perform at the SCG on Thursday is the fact that ODI matches have changed shape to reflect many of the values that have guided his captaincy since that Ahmedabad night in 2011. The allowance for only four fielders outside the circle and the introduction of two new balls have meant that the aggressor is often rewarded, provided his is of sufficient quality, while the holding player, particularly with the ball, is exposed for his limitations.

These changes, advocated by the Cricket Australia chairman Wally Edwards, no less, have not all been warmly received. India have adapted to them almost under protest, while Clarke believes that some change should be made to encourage spinners back into the game. But he agrees that his philosophy as a captain has dovetailed better with the new regime than others: hence Australia's No. 1 ranking in the format.

"I think that's been my mindset in any form of the game, Test cricket, T20 cricket and one-day cricket," Clarke said. "I think my captaincy style is bowling opposition teams out, and when you bat scoring runs, people say bat for time. I say bat for runs. If you make runs, hopefully you can spend the whole day there making them. We play our best when we're trying to bowl opposition teams out.

"I think our game has changed because the conditions have changed. So we've been able to -- the Australian team has been able to adapt to the new conditions. There are probably a couple things that I'd like to see change, but I don't think now is the right time to talk about those. I think the most important thing is the people watching are getting to see some really entertaining one-day cricket, which is great for the one-day format, and that's not necessarily making 375 or 350 runs. 

"I think some of the games have been - think back to the game we played against New Zealand, a lot of low scores, some really classy bowling, the game against Pakistan was a lot tighter than probably what the scoreboard showed from some great bowling. I think right now that's entertaining, and I think it's probably a question for the people that watch the game as well as the people that play it."

However the SCG match pans out, the experiences of past tournaments will help. Two ICC events of recent vintage have provided Australia with plenty of lessons about how not to conduct a campaign. The petering out in 2011 and the "Walkabout" Champions Trophy of 2013 showed what can happen when the team is dysfunctional. Clarke can remember it all too well. 

"Experience in big games makes a difference," he said. "I think in any sport the best balanced team has a mixture of that. It has the experience, but it also has the youth as well, and I'm really confident that our squad has that. I think every single one of those players in there has been a part of some big tournaments through their career. 

"You have some older players that have played in World Cups and had success in World Cups, and you've got some youngsters with unbelievable talent, no fear at all. I look forward to what is thrown at them tomorrow in a semi-final of the World Cup."

As with 2011, there are tensions in there somewhere, but they have not been allowed to overwhelm the team so far. Sydney's semi-final will determine much about whether Clarke will finish this tournament as a winner, or as a thwarted leader pondering his options.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig