South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Cape Town November 8, 2011

Biggest challenge yet for Clarke

On Australia's last tour of South Africa, Ricky Ponting seemed to have started building a successful team. Now it's Michael Clarke's turn.

It was in South Africa nearly three years ago that Ricky Ponting began to build a side that seemed like it would carry Australia into a new era. Four debutants played in the series, which Australia won 2-1, and after some shaky periods following the retirements of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, things appeared to be back on track.

They even secured the Test mace, which ICC staff had feverishly polished as it toured the country, to be claimed by the side that won the series and took No.1 spot. Within six months, Australia had lost the Ashes. The downhill slide was briefly arrested with wins over West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand, but last year's calamitous Ashes campaign was the end for Ponting.

Of the squad that visited South Africa in early 2009, the group that showed so much promise, Marcus North, Ben Hilfenhaus and Simon Katich are now out of the picture. Others, like Bryce McGain and Andrew McDonald, are long gone and forgotten. Now the time has come for Michael Clarke to build his own team. It started with success in Sri Lanka and will continue with a preposterously short two-Test series in South Africa.

Clarke is confident leading in to this series. He is yet to lose a Test or one-day series as captain and his leadership is assured, attacking and appropriate. There is little awkwardness caused by Ponting's continued presence in the squad. This week the former leader was floating around the nets offering advice when asked.

He delivered throwdowns to Shane Watson at training on Monday, suggesting the opener was a few inches short when stepping out to drive. But Ponting is comfortable in whatever roles, on or off the field, Clarke asks him to perform, including his move down to No.4. This is unquestionably Clarke's team; he is captain, selector and motivator.

Two of his most important foundations for the future could be the No.3 Shaun Marsh and the teenage fast bowler Pat Cummins. Marsh, whose career is only two Tests old, is already one of the most important men in the team. Cummins is unlikely to play at Newlands in the first Test, starting on Wednesday, but by travelling with the squad he is gaining valuable experience.

The offspinner Nathan Lyon can enhance his reputation, which was sealed with a wicket with the first ball of his Test career and five for the innings in Sri Lanka. The conditions at Newlands will assist him, but it is also the venue that destroyed any hope McGain had of playing Test cricket again, when he took 0 for 149 on debut there.

But all is not lost from the class of 2009. Mitchell Johnson and Phillip Hughes starred in that series and while both have been dropped since, they now loom as critical men in Clarke's future planning. Johnson especially holds the key to his captain's fortunes. He thrived in South Africa last time, but showed his frustrating inconsistency with a horror Ashes tour a few months later.

"I think him and Hughesy are two guys who are dying for this Test series to start, knowing how successful they were last time we were here," Clarke said. "Every time I take the field I look forward to captaining someone like Mitch because he's a match-winner. He's going to have days when he's going to get hit around the park, but he's going to have other days where he's going to win the game on his own.

"I've made it quite clear to Mitch how I feel. He's a vital member of this team. If he continues to work the way he's working I see no reason why he won't continue to have success. His record is as good as anyone's for the amount of Test matches that he's played. He's swinging the ball back in to the right-handers, he's bowling at good pace."

Johnson warmed up for Wednesday's Newlands Test with nine wickets in the tour match in Potchefstroom. The pitch offered pace and bounce, but his wickets came largely through full, fast, swinging deliveries that had batsmen bowled, lbw or caught behind the wicket. It is the same sort of bowling Australia's batsmen can expect to face against Dale Steyn.

The similarities between the two sides, who each play hard, aggressive cricket, led to an enormously entertaining pair of tours three years ago. If the six Tests were taken as a whole, the result was a fitting 3-3 tie. While Australia have slid to No.5 on the Test rankings and are climbing back up, reaching No.4 after beating Sri Lanka, South Africa have remained steady in second position.

"Both teams have a lot of similarities," Clarke said. "They've got good fast bowlers, who aren't afraid to stick it up the batsmen. And they've got batters who don't really like sitting around batting all day for not many runs. Generally when we play South Africa, I think you see really good attacking, positive cricket from both sides. Generally that's why there's a result every time we play."

A two-Test series offers little scope for themes to develop or for contests to bubble away between individuals. But it does offer the chance for a result. And after Clarke led Australia to ODI series wins against Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa, and a Test victory against Sri Lanka, this is his toughest challenge yet.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on November 10, 2011, 5:09 GMT

    @HatsforBats - agreed, although Dravid hurt us real bad that day he the annoyingly good Oz-killer VVS batted all day & won from the follow on. That REALLY hurt!

  • kan on November 9, 2011, 15:47 GMT

    Australia can not expect to win test series by carrying 2 out of form players (liabilities) very old punter and most inconsistent bowler in the world Johnson in the side, they both should have been dropped more than 2 years ago. time to plug in fresh blood (youth)

  • Dummy4 on November 9, 2011, 11:13 GMT

    @unregisteredalien. I didn't suggest or dispute that Tendulkar isn't a test great? Of course he is but for the avoidance of doubt I was referring to Kallis as a great complete (all round) CRICKETER and not as a specialist batsman. @ randyOz. Watson as fast as or faster than Steyn.....yeah right!!.... and for however long Watson plays test cricket his overall bowling stats will never match Kallis' figures. Remember randyoz...Kallis' numbers are as good as if not better than some front line test strike bowlers and Watson probably woudn't even make South Africas 'A' side as a bowle. r

  • Dummy4 on November 9, 2011, 10:24 GMT


  • Randolph on November 9, 2011, 9:35 GMT

    @landl, you must be confused with who Aus is playing, SA #2 aint playing today!

  • kieran on November 9, 2011, 9:14 GMT

    @ landl47, re: Kallis, don't get me wrong, he is clearly one of the best players of his generation, but he's never really hurt Australia. He's had a few centuries here and there but he's (like Dravid) not the type who takes a game away from you (unlike Ponting, Lara). As for Lyon, more wickets doesn't make Harris a better bowler; Border has more runs than Bradman. Having watched both, Lyon appears the better bowler and he's only 23 (though he looks 35), though it's doubtful he'll play as many tests as Harris. I'm also hopeful to see Tahir play, if it stops raining.

  • Rajaram on November 9, 2011, 8:42 GMT

    THIS is Michael Clarke's DEFINING Moment. I predict he will stamp his Authority and be recognized as the True Leader who will take us back to Number 1 in Test Cricket. All the best, Pup, you are a Top Dog now.

  • Roo on November 9, 2011, 8:11 GMT

    @landl47... It is probably not worth replying to some posts :)... Really talking up or down Lyons, Copeland, Hughes, Ryan Harris, Marsh, Cummins is dumb... They haven't played enough Tests or against enough countries to be getting any "ranking"... All we Aussies can do is wish them the best... Time will tell... Even Watson hasn't played against SA & a 2 Test series will not command bragging rights... We've got an inexperienced but enthusiastic team... Hoping for a 1/1 drawn series... That would be good enough from where we have come from...

  • Bryn on November 9, 2011, 7:09 GMT

    Paul Argyle --- hahahahhahahahahahah mate watson would get into the south african team just as a bowler and be their second best one

  • ankur on November 9, 2011, 7:00 GMT

    Don't think ponting or Steve Waugh can be given much credit for building a "world beating" side......because you don't need to manage the kind of players they had....

    Clarke on other hand is un-lucky to playing without having such great players to get you easy wins test after test.....

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