May 1, 2013

Australia's quest for a leader

The most significant leadership appointment of their winter tours to England may not have been for the Ashes

It has been said of Michael Clarke, in terms both admiring and disparaging, that he prepared to become Australia's captain almost from the day of his birth. Fastidiously developing himself as a cricketer and on-field ringleader, Clarke did all the right things in his teenage years and early 20s to ensure that not long after his recall to the Test side in 2006, it became patently clear to the chairman of selectors, Andrew Hilditch, that he would be the man to succeed Ricky Ponting.

In some ways, Clarke's waiting period for the job was thankless, coinciding with a period of low regard for him among the public and some players. To be deputy to a towering figure in Australian cricket is no easy thing - just ask Mark Taylor about the years he was Allan Border's vice-captain for a reminder that even a leader as universally admired as "Tubby" was temporarily cast as a plodding, methodical heir apparent, lacking the public affection that Border enjoyed in his latter years.

But the sense that Australia had an obvious captain-in-waiting was also reassuring, not least for the selectors. As Hilditch dealt somewhat awkwardly with the national team's slide from pre-eminence to mediocrity, he was at least certain who the next leader would be, and groomed him with appointments for T20 internationals and limited-overs assignments. Clarke had the chance to try the role on for size while still young enough to see a long future ahead, and to recognise that there was more to leadership than setting an apt field for the incoming batsman.

Now, as Clarke is about to embark upon the dual Ashes series that will play a large part in defining his captaincy, Hilditch's successor John Inverarity is looking with increasing urgency for players to whom he could attach a similar level of confidence about leadership. It is proving a highly difficult task.

Inverarity's panel chose a pair of thirtysomethings, each steeped in captaincy at Sheffield Shield level, to be Clarke's lieutenants in the Ashes and the Champions Trophy. Brad Haddin and George Bailey are among the best leadership stock Australian cricket currently possesses, but unless the former defies age in the manner of Graham Gooch or the latter belatedly finds a way to churn out the runs that would demand selection, neither is long-term Test captaincy material.

Haddin's role was expanded beyond that of Clarke's deputy during the Ashes to include the leadership of the Australia A squad, who will gain valuable English experience in whites against the Dukes ball while Clarke attempts to win Australia's third successive Champions Trophy.

The appointments of Clarke, Haddin and Bailey therefore left only one leadership position of any sort to be bestowed upon a young player. To be vice-captain of Australia A may not sound like much, but the selectors' choice of Steve Smith was instructive. While Inverarity noted "we couldn't fit Steve in" the Test squad for England, this does not mean he is far from calculations for the future. On the contrary, Smith is actually the closest thing Australian cricket has right now to a national captain in training.

Smith's promise as a leader and a batsman is modest when lined up against that of Clarke at a similar age, but it is far more than can be said for most of his contemporaries

For many, this may come as a shock. Smith's dancing feet and occasionally impulsive dabbles outside off stump have not yet suggested a great deal of gravitas or even permanence at the Test match batting crease. Much of his career thus far has been dominated by debate about what he actually does. He was always considered a batting allrounder within New South Wales, but his hard-spun legbreaks momentarily shoehorned him into the role as No. 1 spinner for Australia, a case of mistaken identity to rival that of Cameron White.

Yet there have been flashes of leadership potential. Guided by the wise heads of Haddin and Trevor Bayliss at the Sydney Sixers, Smith captained adroitly in the inaugural Big Bash League, helping his team seize their moments after a merely passable qualifying campaign, and then showcasing his boyish grin while lifting the trophy in Perth. Blues team-mates regard Smith as an excellent tactician in the field, and have also been impressed by the gradual but unmistakeable tightening of his batting. If the selectors worried that he was not yet sturdy enough to counter the swinging, seaming ball at Trent Bridge in 2013, they are hopeful there will be no such problem by the time of the next tour, in 2015.

Smith's promise as a leader and a batsman is modest when lined up against that of Clarke at a similar age, but it is far more than can be said for most of his contemporaries. David Warner's brush with the ODI vice-captaincy was brief and has not been repeated. Matthew Wade and Tim Paine have shown a decent combination of steel and smarts at various times, but have the disadvantage of keeping wicket - invariably considered a better position from which to advise than to lead. In Western Australia, Mitchell Marsh has been spoken of for what he might one day accomplish as a leader, but is only now re-emerging as a viable selection option after a year of indiscipline. And that, more or less, is that.

Australia's leadership dearth is every bit as glaring as the hole that has opened up in the nation's batting stocks, and the two issues are not unrelated. Prolific, consistent batsmen have traditionally assumed the captaincy after apprenticeships either domestic or international in nature - see Bradman, Hassett, Simpson, Lawry, the brothers Chappell, Hughes, Border, Taylor, Waugh, Ponting and Clarke. But how to groom a batsman for leadership if he is torn between multiple formats or not even making the requisite runs to claim a consistent domestic place? To that end, Cricket Australia and the selectors are trying to encourage a kind of affirmative action among the states, elevating younger players to more senior positions while also submitting them to leadership training of various kinds.

"It used to be a lot of the Sheffield Shield captains were in the Australian team and getting that leadership experience," Inverarity said when naming the Champions Trophy 15. "We've got to look to get leadership experience in other areas. We've got Steve Smith, who will be vice-captain of Australia A, Ed Cowan was captain of Australia A in England last year. We need to look to give these players various opportunities but also Cricket Australia is investing time and opportunity in a number of players having leadership skills professional development. We need to develop that."

Inverarity went on to refer to "an open field", which seemed a gross understatement. The field is so open that should Clarke decide to conclude his career earlier than most expect, or should his tender back force him to do so, the captaincy would most likely have to pass for a year or two at least to a solid citizen such as Ed Cowan or Bailey. But beyond the short-term, the most obvious next man is Smith, a developing 23-year-old batsman who did not even make the Ashes tour.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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