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.
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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

  • Meety 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!

  • zico123 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)

  • 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

  • on November 9, 2011, 10:24 GMT

    pUNTER SHOULD SHOW THE DOOR BY THE SELECTOR HE IS NOW LIABLITY IN THE SIDE AUSTRALIA WILL WIN THE SERIES AND LEAP FROG SOUTH AFRICA AGAIN

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

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

  • HatsforBats 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.

  • popcorn 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.

  • zenboomerang 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...

  • jonesy2 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

  • Gupta.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.....

  • Meety 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!

  • zico123 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)

  • 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

  • on November 9, 2011, 10:24 GMT

    pUNTER SHOULD SHOW THE DOOR BY THE SELECTOR HE IS NOW LIABLITY IN THE SIDE AUSTRALIA WILL WIN THE SERIES AND LEAP FROG SOUTH AFRICA AGAIN

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

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

  • HatsforBats 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.

  • popcorn 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.

  • zenboomerang 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...

  • jonesy2 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

  • Gupta.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.....

  • unregisteredalien on November 9, 2011, 5:07 GMT

    (1) Clarke on Johnson: "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 am sick of hearing this Teams don't need this kind of player. They need someone who can perform to a high standard on 90% of the days they take the field.

    (2) @HatsforBats: I completely agree about Watson moving down the order, but it seems like everyone in the Aus team establishment is in denial about this, notwithstanding a fairly recent comment from Watto himself!

    (3) I guess it was too much to ask that this thread not be hijacked by caps-locking Indian fans. @Paul Argyle, any minute now someone is going to explode at you for implying Sachin is not a test great.

  • on November 9, 2011, 5:05 GMT

    LOL, looking at the picture, it seems its pretty clear between the ponting-clarke relationship as to who still ideally wears the pants in the team ;)

    Ricky Ponting has been a fantastic player, but he needs to walk away while he still can because he is not going to have the kind of year(s) that Sachin has had recently. Centuries, Double Hundreds (in ODIs and Tests), a World Cup win with 2 centuries in it, ICC awards etc. Ponting has done all that already, and so to hear him say that he is playing at his best at the moment is mere foolishness and its sad to hear him praise his work to justify a spot in the team. Its pretty lame. Currently someone like Virat Kohli is knocking and banging on the door for a place in the test team with his form, but Sachin's current record allows him that proof that he still belongs at #4, but for Ricky to hold that spot at #3 has already made way to Shaun Marsh, but to see Clarke to come in at #5 now is silly. Sorry Ricky, time is up, retire in grace !!

  • on November 9, 2011, 4:59 GMT

    I think mitch will find success in the 2 tests.He has got pace bounce and swing and assistance from sa pitch which he didnt get in sl.He might also be the man of the series.

  • landl47 on November 9, 2011, 4:53 GMT

    @HatsForBats: Kallis' stats are skewed by his first few tests against Aus, before 2000, when he only averaged 24. Since then he's over 46, not great by his standards but pretty good for anyone else, especially as he had to face McGrath, Warne & co. in the first half of the decade. Strangely, Watson has never played a test against SA, so we'll see how he gets on. I'm not sure on what basis you think Lyon is better than Harris; Harris has over 100 test wickets @37 and almost 400 first-class wickets @31. Lyon has 8 test wickets @ 36, including that one 5-for, and 26 first-class wickets @44. Tahir might turn out to be a good test bowler, but he's a risk. I hope SA take the risk, he'll certainly be more exciting to watch than Harris! Still, we'll see soon.

  • landl47 on November 9, 2011, 4:27 GMT

    @RandyOz: I believe this series is between the #2 and #4 sides in the world. If Aus lose this series they will have lost to all the top 3 sides in the last year. My recollection is that they lost to England 3 times by an innings in Aus last Summer, am I right? I'd wait until Aus actually win some games against the top sides before bragging- otherwise you're making yourself look stupid. Oh, and just a word of advice; saying 'England have players not born in England' is called whinging and is for losers. Is that how you want to be seen? Because it's how you come across, just ask your fellow Aussies.

  • on November 9, 2011, 3:56 GMT

    @RandyOz Please watch some cricket matches where Kallis play before making your comments, do you really want him to compare him with Watson or anybody else. He is the greatest cricketer of our era. He is constantly bowling around 135 kph and when he bends his back he even touches 140. At the age of 36 he is batting like a king and to be able to bowl that fast, is it a cakewalk. How many cricketers have done that ??? Whatever may be the outcome of this series, but Kallis will always be the greatest cricketer of our era and this comes from a land where cricket is a religion and Sachin is considered a GOD. Kalis is the best.

  • RandyOZ on November 9, 2011, 2:36 GMT

    @Paul Argyle, Watto pedestrian and not a partnership breaker? You obviously missed the SL series where he was continually breaking em. Plus he's way faster than Kallis. With Steyn's recent drop in pace he's not even that far off him!

  • psychicsaint on November 9, 2011, 1:16 GMT

    I predict SA will thump Aus 2-0, though I expect some Aus youngsters to perform well...

  • Meety on November 8, 2011, 23:55 GMT

    @Antrikish Saal - there was no predictions by Rahulbose - just stating a fact that the pitch between India & WIndies is nothiing like the pitches you'll see in Oz. @Paul Argyle - there is no doubt that Kallis is a great batsmen, however there are a lot of statistical quirks with his stats. Bowling his only sub-30 averages are against Bangladesh & Zimbabwe & his only sub 66 S/R is against the same sides. With the bat he struggles (somewhat) against Oz, Eng & SL. Kallis is not someone Oz fear, he generally bats too slow to mount gebuine scoreboard pressure. We'll sort him out!

  • RandyOZ on November 8, 2011, 22:23 GMT

    @ landl47 I guess youre trawling around looking for more SA talent to snap up. Should've watched the tour game. Some young guns for you to plunder there.

  • RandyOZ on November 8, 2011, 22:19 GMT

    The two best sides in the world going at it at almost full strength, really looking forward to this series!

  • on November 8, 2011, 22:06 GMT

    SA won't have this problem because Ponting is not the 'great' player he was but the most difficult test for Clarke and the rest of his side is how to deal with the perfect cricketer and all rounder in Kallis. Dismiss him early - his wicket is the one that sides covet the most - and you are in the game. However if he gets in then they'll be staring down the proverbial run barrel as he has an EXCEPTIONAL!! record at Newlands. He's also still SAs leading test wicket taker and if your fourth/fifth change bowler has 270 wickets at 32 he is the ideal/perfect 'go to' man. Who have the Aussies got? In contrast Watson is not a partnership breaker or someone who can hold an end up and he's postively pedestrian in comparison!! After that there's Clarke himself!! GREAT players present GREAT challenges. Even tho' its a reduced series there should only be one GREAT outcome? and that is Kallis will reaffirm his status as the only true GREAT currently playing test match cricket.

  • HatsforBats on November 8, 2011, 21:17 GMT

    @landl47, Kallis has hardly ever performed against Aus with bat or ball. He avgs 40 & 36 with bat & ball, not much different to Watson really (who will hopefully stop opening soon). But he is an important anchor that AB particularly can build a devastating partnership with. I like your suggestion to leave Lyon out for Cummins but I think it would be more likely in Jo'burg. But I think you're a bit tough on him suggesting his true form is to avg 80-odd, he shows excellent control and gets great flight & drift, he shows a lot of promise. Certainly he's better than Paul Harris who shouldn't play, picking a containing spinner in front of an attacking leggie is a backward step for SA. Steyn can contain & take wickets, Harris offers nothing.

  • on November 8, 2011, 20:42 GMT

    @Rahulbose India struggled against NZ in 2003 at home before having a great series in Aus.In 2008 again they played Pak(similar schedule interestingly to WI), then had a good tour in Aus. DON'T PREDICT SO SOON, AUS AND ENG ARE DIFFERENT TEAMS AND CONDITIONS ARE ALSO NOT SAME.INDIA ARE FACING QUALITY BOWLING CURRENTLY THOUGH.THAT WILL HELP.

  • Rahulbose on November 8, 2011, 20:11 GMT

    Two test series is too short. SA obviously have the better side but it should be a contest. Also, it is interesting that while India play WI on slow track Aus team is playing SA. Aussies will be much better prepared for the coming series against Ind.

  • Tim40621 on November 8, 2011, 18:28 GMT

    Well it should be a great challenge for Micheal Clarke, but Its a total disgrace that this is a 2 match series terrible for test cricket. It should be 4, dont get me wrong i like T20 cricket but if its affecting the best form test cricket then there simply has to be less!

  • landl47 on November 8, 2011, 17:39 GMT

    This should be a fascinating series. Strangely, the preview doesn't mention the most important players on either side- Hussey and Kallis. Hussey has held the Aus batting together over the last 2 series, while Kallis is one of the giants of the game: almost 12,000 runs @57 and 270 wickets @32. Compare that with Watson's puny 2000 runs @39 and 50 wickets @almost 30! Kallis is the reason I give SA the edge in this series, so if Aus can contain him they have a good chance. If I were Aus I'd play Cummins instead of Lyon; Lyon took 5-34 on a rank turner in the first SL test, but 3-261 in the rest of the series, which is more like his true form. Cummins' pace will unsettle SA far more than Lyon's gentle spin- Clarke can use himself for a change of pace. The SA side almost picks itself, except for the spin bowling slot. Tahir is 32 and has never played a test, so he's a risk. Harris is steady, but not a matchwinner. I'd opt for Harris and let Steyn and Morkel take the wickets. Go to it!

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  • landl47 on November 8, 2011, 17:39 GMT

    This should be a fascinating series. Strangely, the preview doesn't mention the most important players on either side- Hussey and Kallis. Hussey has held the Aus batting together over the last 2 series, while Kallis is one of the giants of the game: almost 12,000 runs @57 and 270 wickets @32. Compare that with Watson's puny 2000 runs @39 and 50 wickets @almost 30! Kallis is the reason I give SA the edge in this series, so if Aus can contain him they have a good chance. If I were Aus I'd play Cummins instead of Lyon; Lyon took 5-34 on a rank turner in the first SL test, but 3-261 in the rest of the series, which is more like his true form. Cummins' pace will unsettle SA far more than Lyon's gentle spin- Clarke can use himself for a change of pace. The SA side almost picks itself, except for the spin bowling slot. Tahir is 32 and has never played a test, so he's a risk. Harris is steady, but not a matchwinner. I'd opt for Harris and let Steyn and Morkel take the wickets. Go to it!

  • Tim40621 on November 8, 2011, 18:28 GMT

    Well it should be a great challenge for Micheal Clarke, but Its a total disgrace that this is a 2 match series terrible for test cricket. It should be 4, dont get me wrong i like T20 cricket but if its affecting the best form test cricket then there simply has to be less!

  • Rahulbose on November 8, 2011, 20:11 GMT

    Two test series is too short. SA obviously have the better side but it should be a contest. Also, it is interesting that while India play WI on slow track Aus team is playing SA. Aussies will be much better prepared for the coming series against Ind.

  • on November 8, 2011, 20:42 GMT

    @Rahulbose India struggled against NZ in 2003 at home before having a great series in Aus.In 2008 again they played Pak(similar schedule interestingly to WI), then had a good tour in Aus. DON'T PREDICT SO SOON, AUS AND ENG ARE DIFFERENT TEAMS AND CONDITIONS ARE ALSO NOT SAME.INDIA ARE FACING QUALITY BOWLING CURRENTLY THOUGH.THAT WILL HELP.

  • HatsforBats on November 8, 2011, 21:17 GMT

    @landl47, Kallis has hardly ever performed against Aus with bat or ball. He avgs 40 & 36 with bat & ball, not much different to Watson really (who will hopefully stop opening soon). But he is an important anchor that AB particularly can build a devastating partnership with. I like your suggestion to leave Lyon out for Cummins but I think it would be more likely in Jo'burg. But I think you're a bit tough on him suggesting his true form is to avg 80-odd, he shows excellent control and gets great flight & drift, he shows a lot of promise. Certainly he's better than Paul Harris who shouldn't play, picking a containing spinner in front of an attacking leggie is a backward step for SA. Steyn can contain & take wickets, Harris offers nothing.

  • on November 8, 2011, 22:06 GMT

    SA won't have this problem because Ponting is not the 'great' player he was but the most difficult test for Clarke and the rest of his side is how to deal with the perfect cricketer and all rounder in Kallis. Dismiss him early - his wicket is the one that sides covet the most - and you are in the game. However if he gets in then they'll be staring down the proverbial run barrel as he has an EXCEPTIONAL!! record at Newlands. He's also still SAs leading test wicket taker and if your fourth/fifth change bowler has 270 wickets at 32 he is the ideal/perfect 'go to' man. Who have the Aussies got? In contrast Watson is not a partnership breaker or someone who can hold an end up and he's postively pedestrian in comparison!! After that there's Clarke himself!! GREAT players present GREAT challenges. Even tho' its a reduced series there should only be one GREAT outcome? and that is Kallis will reaffirm his status as the only true GREAT currently playing test match cricket.

  • RandyOZ on November 8, 2011, 22:19 GMT

    The two best sides in the world going at it at almost full strength, really looking forward to this series!

  • RandyOZ on November 8, 2011, 22:23 GMT

    @ landl47 I guess youre trawling around looking for more SA talent to snap up. Should've watched the tour game. Some young guns for you to plunder there.

  • Meety on November 8, 2011, 23:55 GMT

    @Antrikish Saal - there was no predictions by Rahulbose - just stating a fact that the pitch between India & WIndies is nothiing like the pitches you'll see in Oz. @Paul Argyle - there is no doubt that Kallis is a great batsmen, however there are a lot of statistical quirks with his stats. Bowling his only sub-30 averages are against Bangladesh & Zimbabwe & his only sub 66 S/R is against the same sides. With the bat he struggles (somewhat) against Oz, Eng & SL. Kallis is not someone Oz fear, he generally bats too slow to mount gebuine scoreboard pressure. We'll sort him out!

  • psychicsaint on November 9, 2011, 1:16 GMT

    I predict SA will thump Aus 2-0, though I expect some Aus youngsters to perform well...