India v Australia, 1st Test, Chennai February 21, 2013

Steep learning curve awaits Australia

Leading a team short on experience, Michael Clarke will face delicate task of balancing his aggressive instincts against an under-pressure home side seeking momentum

Michael Clarke is widely regarded as Australia's finest captain since Mark Taylor. If he can lead his men to a series win in India the last three words of that sentence might become superfluous. In the modern era, only Ashes triumphs have ranked as highly for Australian Test teams as the fabled series win in India, a goal that has eluded a long list of captains including Taylor, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Allan Border and Kim Hughes.

In the past 43 years, only a team of champions steered by Adam Gilchrist in 2004 has enjoyed such a success. At his disposal, Gilchrist had Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann, Simon Katich, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz, Shane Warne, and a young Clarke. Now in charge, Clarke must do the job this year with resources that by comparison appear as thin as Ishant Sharma.

It is not that his squad is weak, just lacking in experience. Only four members of the squad have played Test cricket in India and one of those, Mitchell Johnson, was not even picked for the first Test in Chennai. Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey are gone, permanently. Ponting was the last remaining link to the 2004 team that served as Clarke's welcoming party to Test cricket. It is no coincidence that since Ponting's retirement late last year, Clarke has often found himself emotional and reflective.

As he prepared for the Chennai Test on the eve of the match, Clarke was out in the middle of the MA Chidambaram Stadium, standing in batting mode on the pitch, practicing his shots, visualising his innings. He would have seen Hayden go through the same motions at the same venue in 2004, for it was a classic habit of the opener. But whereas Hayden was only part of a powerful and experienced top seven, Clarke will need shoulders the size of Hayden's to carry Australia in this series.

It is not a dissimilar situation to the one Border found himself in during the 1986 tour. Although Border was not the player of spin that Clarke is, he entered the series as the talisman of a side that was about to unearth a few jewels. The first Test in Madras was Border's 82nd and the Australian XI combined had only 192 matches of Test experience.

This Chennai Test will be Clarke's 90th; his team in total has played 254. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev between them had played more Tests than the entire Australian team in Madras in 1986. This time around the same can be said of Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh, or Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, or Tendulkar and MS Dhoni, such is the experience throughout the India outfit.

"That's where the team's at now," Clarke said in Chennai on the eve of the first Test. "I guess that was probably why I was a little bit emotional during the Australian summer when Ricky Ponting retired, when Michael Hussey retired, speaking at the Allan Border Medal. All the players I grew up with, watching and then playing with at the start of my career, that generation of players is gone.

"So that's been quite hard to see, that transition, that change. But on the other side I'm really excited about that because now we have the opportunity as a young team to create our own destiny, build our own legacy. There would be nothing more satisfying than [a new era of success]. Who knows, we might never be the team that wins 16 Test matches in a row, but we might be as well. It's going to take time. It's going to take a lot of hard work."

Border's team managed a drawn series in 1986 and such a result would certainly be a pass mark for Clarke's 2013 squad, given that nine of the touring party have played fewer than ten Tests. It is rare for an Australian Test side to have such low expectations entering a series, but the changing nature of the team combined with Australia's historically poor record in India means that nobody really expects Clarke's team to triumph.

Win and they will be hailed as heroes; lose and, well, that was to be expected. Not that abject team failures and extended slumps from individuals will be allowed to pass unnoticed. England's success in the Test series in India late last year showed that MS Dhoni's men can be beaten at home, and also set the bar high ahead of the upcoming Ashes contest this year. But England may also have done Australia a favour by increasing the pressure on India.

"They lost their last series so that's the reason the Indian media have built this series up so much. For me I haven't looked too much into it," Clarke said. "I'm not that bothered about what's happened in regards to the Indian series against England. I watched a fair bit of it ... but we're a different team to England. Our strengths are different. We play a different brand of cricket."

A big part of that brand is based around Clarke's positive captaincy, always searching for a way to win. It looks good when it works. But Clarke will face a delicate balancing act between attacking an under-pressure India and halting their momentum when it starts to flow, as it surely will. And all of this with a team that is still finding its way. One way or another, the next five weeks will be a steep learning curve.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • andrews on February 22, 2013, 4:32 GMT

    Border was not the player of spin that Clarke is? His record in India and Pakistan would suggest otherwise. Ffl, there is less than 3 runs per wicket difference between Swann and Lyon. Check the figures and you will see that Hauritz also comprehensively out bowled Swann when they met head to head in 2009. It must say something that Hauritz can' t make this side.

  • David on February 22, 2013, 3:06 GMT

    @AKS286, I don't know which parallel universe you are beaming in from, but it certainly not the one I'm living in. Clarke has done a great job with the team, and they are playing well. The rest is just in your head.

  • Dummy4 on February 22, 2013, 0:53 GMT

    Com'on, why do you wanna say low expectation even before the series is started. I believe, even though Australia is presenting a young side, they still are a very good and can win matches. India is an old side and has too many aged players in their side, so they wont be too physical in the field as the Aussies. But the Indians have experience, yet as per my view they never quite gel as a team. So if Clarke, Watson and the other more experience players play well, and if the newer and younger player can play some solid innings and bowl in bit of swing, the Indian team can be broken. So go Aussie, lets win this match!

  • Dummy4 on February 22, 2013, 0:42 GMT

    It is going to be steep learning curve for the Indians as well, since they have plenty of new faces and only Tendulkar and Sehwag from the older batch. It has become a matter of pride now that they been exposed as not a gr8 team to be able to play the Pace as well as the Spin. Its going to be big challenge for Dhoni to manipulate his resources which are not many,but if he sticks to his favorite Ashvin he will be in trouble or sure.

  • Adrian on February 22, 2013, 0:12 GMT

    Australia can win this series, make no mistake about that. Even though the squad of 17 may not have been quite right, and the final 11 has probably 3 (Henriques, Lyon and Siddle) that I would strongly object to, I still think that they can win. The selections aren't perfect but they aren't terrible either. And there are some mighty fine players of spin amongst them, players with magnificent records against India in India. Michael Clarke's current form and his form against spin makes Alistair Cook look like a novice - and we all saw the way that Cook played against India in their last series here. Clarke will have ample support from Watson and Warner at least - and if just one of the others steps up (all but Siddle and Lyon can bat a bit), Australia could get a big total. While India seem to have all of their eggs in one basket, Australia have kept their options open and have a balanced attack, both batting and bowling. It looks to me like India are likely to lose.

  • Anit on February 21, 2013, 22:21 GMT

    What low expectations? This Indian team is very venerable with some non-performing players and weak bowling. Both Pakistan and England exposed the Indian team at home.

  • Mark on February 21, 2013, 21:07 GMT

    @landl47 This is going to be a huge series for Ravi Ashwin. His stock could not have been higher after reaching 50 wickets so fast; now it could hardly be lower... fans ask now if he will ever, can ever be a wicket-taking bowler at this level. He can answer his critics by taking a hatfull of wickets and bowling India to a win or two in helpful conditions, or Australia can bury him forever. This may well be the battle of the series: the side that wins it, wins the series. If India lose, it is hard to see Sachin Tendulkar, or Dhoni, or Harbhajan, or Sehwag playing again.

  • Nimash on February 21, 2013, 20:57 GMT

    People underestimate the current Australian team & so did they back when Australia defeated india 4-0 & was never expected. I've got the feeling that Australia will give similar kind of a challenge England gave. One of the very big positives for Australia is that their leader's confidence is sky high & has been the most prolific batsman over the past 18 months. If their young guns with the likes of HUGHES, WARNER, WADE can step up Aussies will be able to create history. Theres no doubt about the talent in their pace bowling stocks.

  • j on February 21, 2013, 20:41 GMT

    An Indian side set up on a plate by England, just like in 2011, for the Aussies to take will still win the series. India have a wide variety of spin options available, Australia (in sheer contrast) don't have any. Lyon has been a failure as a bowler, and doesn't extract any turn: even a seamer could turn the ball on most Indian pitches so he must surely get the odd one to turn this series? But just look at how much depth India have to their spin options, with Jadeja (probably the 3rd or maybe 4th best spinner in the Indian team) being an excellent bowler, combining variation with accuray. A test match is five days, the aussies haven't the players to cope with 5th day pitches. India 3-0 without a doubt.