November 16, 2007

First impressions

Stuart Clark has developed a liking for the early breakthrough



Early-mover advantage: Stuart Clark has the knack of getting into his stride pronto © Getty Images
It is supposed to take only four minutes when first meeting someone to develop a lasting opinion. That's a little less than the time needed to bowl two overs. On many occasions over the past couple of years, it's all Stuart Clark has allowed for in exchanges with opposing batsmen. It's not because he's rude (he's very generous in social situations); it's because he is a master of the early breakthrough.

Clark manages it when the top order is at its most attentive, and his ability to claim victims at the start of a spell has led to a swift elevation to essential team member. He is now impossible for the opposition to forget.

On the third morning in Brisbane, Clark caught Mahela Jayawardene's edge with his lifting fifth ball, and in his opening over of the final day Chamara Silva was dropped by Phil Jaques at square leg. Not bothered by the miss, Clark returned in his second to remove Prasanna Jayawardene with a delivery that darted back and caught the batsman lbw - it was his 50th wicket in ten Tests. The removal of those key stumbling blocks spurred Australia each time and they went on to win by an innings and 40 runs.

Clark took four wickets at the Gabba and only one - Muttiah Muralitharan was yorked to end the match - did not come in the opening two overs of a spell. The trait is a dream for Ricky Ponting, who looks like a shrewd tactician whenever he employs Clark, and the dismissals are occurring too regularly to be a coincidence.

During the 2006-07 Ashes, he captured a wicket in his first over of a spell twice and eight times managed a breakthrough in his second. On three occasions he claimed victims in his third over. Half of his 26 series dismissals came within the opening 18 balls, earning him untouchable credibility as a brutal change bowler.

"The first over of my spell sets the tone," Clark says. "If you bowl a good first over, you immediately get ahead of the batsman. If you bowl a poor one and it goes for 20, you're under pressure, but if it's a good one you're ahead."

Clark's extra bounce, especially when compared with Brett Lee, makes him an immediate challenge for the batsmen, who also have to deal with him hitting his target almost instantly. But despite his knack for finding an awkward length straight away, he insists he is not fully ready until halfway through the opening over.

"All the warming up in the world doesn't stop you from loosening up with that first ball," he says. "With the first ball, you run in to the level your body lets you. I'm trying to land it on a good length. If the ball's brand new it might swing, if it's a bit older I just want to hit the wicket and get that first ball in the right spot. After two or three balls you're a bit warmer and you can start formulating a few plans."

Starting loosely on the third day in Brisbane, Clark was struck for two fours before the successful readjustment for his fifth delivery to Mahela Jayawardene. The strong celebration supported his claim that a first-over wicket is more rewarding. "It puts you further ahead and gives you extra confidence," he says. "You start believing in yourself and the mental side of the game starts to come into it."

The problems then pass to the batsmen. Sri Lanka will be aware of the danger in the second Test in Hobart. After Clark's early-spell success at the Gabba, they know him well. The bounce is sharp, the movement teasing, the line accurate and the threat constant. In a short time Clark has made a lasting impression.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo

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