December 16, 2011

The tasks of Clarke and Dhoni

The Australia and India captains are living two different stages of a team's life cycle. Their contest in the upcoming series will be intriguing
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Over 25 years Australia have only had six Test captains. It is a staggering number, one routinely buried amid the rather more mundane records that pop up every half hour. In comparison, India have had 11 in the same period, though there has been far greater stability in the second half of that interval. What this tells you is that Australia have not only picked captains with care but have also chosen the right moment.

From Allan Border to Michael Clarke is quite a story, but it is not one of regular linear progression; no, life doesn't move in simple, straight lines. Instead, it is one of astonishing leaps forward - every captain stamped his personality on the job - and, a bit like in a one-lap race, an eventual return to the starting point. Border inherited a team in disarray. His predecessor, a tremendous cricketer sacrificed to the captaincy, in the eyes of some, quit in tears. The backroom boy was called up and Australia rebuilt, putting attitude first, and picking men of character, substantial people.

We can sometimes cast a superficial eye on the past, but those were the real building years, and those who picked the players can take as much credit as the players themselves. Mark Taylor, born to lead, and Steve Waugh took them far ahead of the opposition; one with flair, the other with a tinge of ruthlessness. Outstanding cricketers were sprouting everywhere and Australia grew strong by the day, almost like the dollar does against the rupee these days.

But the history of cricket tells us that one great generation eventually cannibalises another, and Ricky Ponting was given the job of proposing the vote of thanks for one of the greatest eras in world cricket. It is sad if that is all he is remembered for, because he is one of the game's greats, but it had been willed that way. As he benefitted from being part of an extraordinary set-up, so too did he have to bear the brunt of its inevitable by-product: all things that go up must come down. It is the cycle of life itself.

Border did not have to sit in judgement over a Greg Chappell as Clarke might just have to with Ponting, a player and leader he always looked up to

Now Clarke stands where Border stood 26 years ago. He is a product of a different era and is vastly different in personality. Clarke is outgoing, aggressive and looks like he wants to be a leader. Border was defiant, steely and had to grow into the job. But there is one other major difference. Border did not have to sit in judgement over a Greg Chappell as Clarke might just have to with Ponting, a player and leader he always looked up to. Australia's great strength has been its ability to say goodbye at the right time, as they did with Healy, the Waughs and Gilchrist.

And as he contemplates a series against India that can only be more cheerful than the one played in 2007-08, Clarke will look at his side and wonder why the runs don't seem to correlate well enough with the pedigree on offer. Luckily he has a group of young fast bowlers that he could fall back upon, and indeed, the clash of fiery, impatient youth with calm, phlegmatic experience will be the highlight of this series.

There is no Pat Cummins, cruelly laid low by injury so early in his career, but Pattinson, Starc, Siddle and Harris, a peculiar alloy of the robust and the fragile, will be a handful. Clarke has to give them wings, let them flutter and fall occasionally for Australia's future seems to lie with the ball rather more than with the bat.

His opposite number doesn't have quite the same issues on hand. Dhoni has inherited a side moulded by Ganguly, Dravid and Kumble, and he has lent stability to Indian cricket, where once a captain was forced to look back as often as he tried to look ahead.

Dhoni's real challenge will come in 12 months, when the stalwarts start to say goodbye to astonishing careers. It might have happened by now elsewhere, but in India we err on the side of the status quo where Australia tend to cull and move on. The status quo, unlike in public policy and economic affairs, where it has been a disaster, has actually served India quite well, with Tendulkar shrugging off an indifferent spell with aplomb and Dravid peeling back the years with dignity.

Even though Dhoni arrives in Australia with the wounds of the England tour still raw, and with bowlers breaking down either side of making the flight, he knows what it is to win for he has done so in every form of the game. His side is quite at contrast to Clarke's for he has depth in batting but still no precise idea of whom to throw the new ball to on Boxing Day. His great strength has been in managing a side that has in it those he idolised. It couldn't have been easy but those idols too are men of some class. He sits rather more comfortably on his perch than does Clarke. It is a series to savour.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Beazle on December 19, 2011, 22:08 GMT

    AB would have loved Greg Chappell to continue as would before him, poor Kim Hughes as Greg was still the best player in the side when he retired.

  • dummy4fb on December 18, 2011, 23:37 GMT

    Why on earth India struggling to get the top inform bowlers to Australia rather than unfit and injured ones!!!we know lefties will be of grt service to Indian pace attack with rookies,, The dream lineup Zak,irfan umesh & mithun by god sake I jus saw aajtak n had shocker to see dinda flyin to oz!!!!!!god save India!!!!!!

  • Mina_Anand on December 18, 2011, 15:36 GMT

    It's strange how cricket writers and commentators, perpetuate the myth that Australian payers 'know when to go'.

    This is what we have been fed over the years, and the average cricket fan will swallow what he hears.

    But the real followers of the game, know better.

    Know that the Aussies are not role models when it comes to 'saying goodbye'.

    Know that Steve Waugh, Gilchrist and Healy were all 'over 36' when they 'went'.

    Know that before the 2007 World Cup, a struggling Gilchrist famously said: "Would have dropped myself long back if I was a Selector".

    We harp on the 'Indian' shelf factor, comparing our 'reluctant to retire' players to the 'knowing when to quit' Aussies; without stopping to think -each to their own .

    If a cricketer feels he has enough cricket left in him (never mind that others don't see it!) why shouldn't he listen to his inner self and "say goodbye at the right time".

    Not when an Ian, Tony, or Manjrekar - call wrong !

  • Mr_Anonymous on December 18, 2011, 2:27 GMT

    Just started reading news on Indian websites that Ishant's injury maybe worse than thought before especially after he was able to bowl only a few overs in the first game. Maybe its a sore ankle and I sincerely hope he recovers before the series starts (would love to see another contest between him and Ricky Ponting) but if he does not recover in time, India does have some options that they need to consider and need to bring one of the following to Australia right away (assuming that none of the following are injured): Pathan, Munaf Patel, Sreesanth, Nehra or RP Singh

  • Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas on December 17, 2011, 22:09 GMT

    @Nampally, absolutely right. Clarke's problem is to find the right combo whereas Dhoni's problem is to find a fit XI who can play proper test cricket. Beggars belief that Ishant Sharma and BCCI have made this into their tamaasha within the first half hour of the tour during that first tour match. At least in England, Zaheer survived into his second spell during the first test match. India is going back. They can learn a thing or two from England regarding covering all your bases.

  • Nampally on December 17, 2011, 20:33 GMT

    Dhoni's task would be far more complex than Clarke's. He has to manage the team on & off the field + manage the injuries when the Selectors provided him with half fit or injured players. Both ZAK & Ishant are of suspect fitness. Harsha is absolutely right when he says that on Boxing day Dhoni does not know whom to throw the new ball to. So Dhoni's challenge is right here & now - not 12 months away. He has good batting but a bowling which is still a work in progress. Only spinners Ojha & Ashwin are good & reliable but pitches seamer freindly. Dhoni may have to settle with Yadev, Ashwin, Ojha, Vinay/ZAK/Ishant depending upon injuries. Dhoni's problems may have been simplified if India went with at least 18 fit players which included 2 all rounders. But as things stand Dhoni's problems are just starting.Clarke has many young guys at his disposal.His problenm is to find the right combo.

  • Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas on December 17, 2011, 18:32 GMT

    If one has to go by the way Indians batted against Windies in our home conditions, then there isn't much hope in this series. BUT, I feel they are going to stand up and be counted in this series. Don't ask me why do I feel so. Next, our main problem is bowling - HUGE question marks on Zaheer's and Ishant's fitness. In fact, I just read on rediff that India have started to look for Ishant's replacement and that he won't be playing in the next tour game and also the boxing day test match. What a naatak this is turning out to be!

  • dummy4fb on December 17, 2011, 18:32 GMT

    this tour seems like the waterloo of indian batting ''giants''

  • hhillbumper on December 17, 2011, 18:16 GMT

    two teams one has no young bowling talent and one has no young batting talent. Guess we will see what happens.

  • dummy4fb on December 17, 2011, 17:08 GMT

    Harsha,too bad you have written praises about the australian cricketing legacy and ignored the indian cricket.Why are you always telling india wont let sachin,laxman,dravid to retire.Let them play cricket till they cannot.Australians are profressionally trained robots .They are not naturally talented cricketers.That is why their retire soon when they are left with no inventivenes..Harsha why you tell that the big three of india will retire within one year and dhoni might be challenged.Last time when india toured australia you told this will be the last sachin,laxman and dravid play and look what happened.If Jayasurya and Lara can play when they are 42 years,so can these players simply because they can score runs .And Harsha one more thing,stop the euphoroa about ricky ponting .He will retire after this series.

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