Clarke almost certain to miss fourth Test in Delhi
Michael Clarke appears almost certain to miss the fourth and final Test against India in Delhi after failing to take part in Australia's last training session before the match. Clarke's likely absence will open the door for Australia to appoint their 44th Test captain, most likely Clarke's deputy Shane Watson, which would be a rapid return to favour after he was one of the four players left out of the previous Test for disciplinary reasons, and voiced his opinion that the punishment was "very harsh".
Clarke has had ongoing back problems for more than a decade, and suffered pain while fielding on the fourth morning of the Mohali Test. Although he batted in the second innings of that match, he was clearly hampered, and did not take part in either of Australia's practice sessions at the Feroz Shah Kotla on Wednesday or Thursday. Australia might not make a decision on Clarke until the morning of the match, but his lack of training would make it near impossible to choose him.
Australia could make several changes, with the wicketkeeper Matthew Wade likely to return at the expense of Brad Haddin, after being ruled out due to an ankle injury in Mohali. Xavier Doherty's chances of retaining his place appear slim, after he looked dejected during a long on-field chat with coach Mickey Arthur. Given the likelihood of a slow, spinning pitch, Glenn Maxwell could be in contention for Moises Henriques' place as the allrounder.
But the major issue for Australia is the likely loss of Clarke, not only for his generally shrewd captaincy, but more significantly, for his run-scoring and ability to handle spinning conditions. Clarke has scored 286 runs at 47.66 on this tour, comfortably the most by any Australian. He is also the only member of the touring party to have made a century in the Test series.
By comparison, Watson has failed to convert his starts and has averaged 25.20 since taking on the vice-captaincy in 2011. He has also failed to score a century in that time, with his highest score being 88 against South Africa in Johannesburg. He hasn't scored a Test century, either as player or vice-captain, since October 2010.
"He's plays his own way, he's very aggressive and he's a match-winner. I love seeing him play that way," Clarke said of Watson before training on Thursday. "I think it's just a matter of time before Watto (Watson) walks out there and gets a big hundred. He works as hard as anybody. He wants to have success, he wants to help his team win. I wouldn't be surprised if he walks out in this Test and comes out with a bang, with a hundred to finish this tour."
Although Watson has not officially been declared the leader if Clarke is ruled out, both Clarke and the coach Mickey Arthur have said over the past few days he would be the logical candidate. Watson returned to the squad this week having flown home for the birth of his first child, which coincided with him being axed for failing to complete a homework task set by Arthur. After the innings loss in the second Test in Hyderabad, he was back at training in Delhi on Wednesday.
"Shane has my full support if he's appointed captain," Clarke said. "Shane, like the rest of the players, missed the last Test match. If he was available for the Test he would have played. He was made unavailable, and that's why he spoke to his wife and flew home for the birth of his first child.
"It worked out nicely but he would have stayed and played the Test match [in Mohali] and missed the birth if he was available. I think Shane, like the other three players, have served their sentence in missing that game. He's 100% available for this Test match, and at this stage, like I've said for a long time, he's our vice-captain. In my opinion if the board and the other selectors appoint him as captain he has my 100% full support."
Although Clarke was speaking before the training session, and was at the time hopeful of playing, he conceded he had been in considerable pain due to his back injury over the past few days. Clarke, 31, has been managing his back problem since he was 17, and the ongoing issue is sometimes seen as evidence his career might not last as long as some other batsmen. Clarke does not believe the problem will affect his cricket longevity, but believed it was an issue that could flare up at any time.
"My back gets irritated when I'm in flexion and I rotate," Clarke said. "I hurt it the other day while fielding [in Mohali], sprinting for a ball, picking it up, and throwing it off balance, which is exactly the opposite to what my back likes, but I've done that a number of times throughout my career in regards to when I field. Sometimes with degeneration of the disc, it can flare up, but I will manage it as well as I can. I'm very grateful for the people around, especially [team physio] Alex Kountouris, and my physio when I'm back in Sydney, to keep me on the park consistently.
"I was in a bit of pain [in Mohali], unfortunately the painkillers wore off. I don't know if it's as bad as it's been. It's not a nice feeling. It was very uncomfortable and it impacted my performance, in regards to not the number of runs I made, but the movement. I felt I couldn't move down the wicket because I was so restricted, and I'd hate to see what the fielding side of it looked like. It's slowly improving. If you ask Alex or the team doctor, they might have a different impression."
Clarke has never missed a Test due to injury, but if he is forced to sit out in Delhi it will create extra pressure on the rest of the batting order, given how heavily Australia have relied on him in recent times. Fortunately for the Australians, Steven Smith showed his class against spin during the Mohali Test. Phillip Hughes, who had looked awful when facing the slow bowlers during the first two Tests, fought through his problems and scored 69 in the second innings.
"I think Hughesy (Hughes) is probably a great example of learning on this tour," Clarke said. "I think every single one of us would walk away from this tour and have learnt something. I think Hughesy showed that last game. He changed a couple of things in his game to help him have success in these conditions especially against spin bowling, and it really worked for him."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here