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February 12, 2013
Haywire scheduling, key retirements and a stubbornly stiff right hamstring. Even before the vagaries of the subcontinent could be considered, Michael Clarke departed for India with the palpable sense that he is embarking upon the most difficult task of his captaincy so far.
Clarke was at pains to keep his selection options as open as possible before setting off to join the squad assembling in Chennai. The loss of Michael Hussey so soon after Ricky Ponting and the redefinition of Shane Watson have left the batting in particular with a whiff of the uncertain.
Add to this Clarke's hamstring trouble, which may yet rule him out of the full squad's only warm-up match, and there was every reason to believe the captain's pronouncement that he has not stared down a greater challenge than those to come over the four Tests.
For a reminder of the difficulty, Clarke needed only to look back at the 2010 visit, a tour hurriedly upgraded from ODIs to Tests by the BCCI and finishing in a 2-0 defeat for the team then captained by Ponting. Clarke cobbled 35 runs in four innings, his torpor summed up by a Bangalore stumping in which he did not realise his foot had dragged beyond the crease line.
"Touring India is as tough a challenge as I've had in my career," Clarke said in Sydney. "Every time I've been there on a Test tour it's been extremely difficult, hence the Australian team hasn't won that much over there. So it's a huge challenge, the players know that.
"That's partly why we're trying to prepare as well as we can by sending players early to get them used to conditions, to give ourselves the best chance. We know it's going to be tough, we know how good India is, but we look forward to it."
The Australian team's calendar for 2013 is so congested that this tour is the first to start before the home international program had finished. While Clarke is somewhere in the air between Sydney and Chennai, 11 members of his squad will be commencing a two-day warm-up match.
After Clarke has arrived, the coach Mickey Arthur will still be minding a severely weakened Twenty20 team in a match against the West Indies in Brisbane. Given the jarring adjustment from Australian climes and surfaces to those that may be found in India, it is hardly the ideal way to prepare. And preparation has always been one of Clarke's favourite buzzwords.
"What I've learned in the past is how important preparation is for my personal performance," Clarke said when asked about his dire 2010 tour. "I need to make sure I've done all my training to give myself the best chance of scoring runs.
"That's what I'm looking forward to over the next few days. Getting into the Indian conditions, batting on those wickets, facing a lot of reverse swing, a lot of spin bowling, and making sure when that first ball's bowled in that first Test that I'll be as well prepared as I was for this summer.
"I'd really like to play that three-dayer. I'll be advised by Alex [Kountouris] the physio once I land in India but at this stage my plan is to play that three-dayer. There is so much time I don't think there is any doubt I'll be fit for the first Test.
"In my mind cricket-wise I feel like I need that game to spend some time in the middle in Indian conditions both batting and bowling, but also with my captaincy as well because India is such a different place to Australia. But I'll listen to the expert and see what he has to say."
Among the players who have a headstart on Clarke by way of acclimatisation time are the allrounders Glenn Maxwell and Moises Henriques, plus the young batsman and sometime legspinner Steve Smith. One of the trio is likely to be chosen in the Tests as No. 6 or 7 batsman and fifth bowling option, now Watson can no longer provide it.
"It's very open, hence we've sent 17 players in three different stages to get over there as soon as possible to prepare and get used to conditions," Clarke said. "Runs and wickets will certainly play a big part in these practice games leading up to the first Test but for a lot of guys it's more about preparation and seeing conditions."
Those conditions will vary, as will the range of questions posed by an Indian side stung by recent defeats and intent on demonstrating, in the words of Harbhajan Singh, "how we play cricket here". Clarke's leadership, as both batsman and captain, is about to face its sternest examination yet.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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