Australia in South Africa 2013-14 February 4, 2014

Clarke's brutish Pretoria welcome

Robbed of precious practice time in Potchefstroom, the Australia captain had a hair-raising net against the team's fast bowlers on damp pitch

With apologies to Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, Australia's Michael Clarke may not face tougher bowling all tour than he did on Tuesday. A hair-raising 30 balls in the nets on a dangerously damp and drying Centurion Park practice wicket ensured that Clarke's feet were moving and his blood pumping as he faced up to the combined might of the Australian pace attack, stretching out in their first notable spells of the trip to South Africa.

Aware of the danger posed by the pitch and adhering to the markers laid down by the bowling coach Craig McDermott, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Jackson Bird, James Pattinson and Moises Henriques all pursued a fullish length. Even so, they repeatedly hit the splice of Clarke's bat as they did so, with the odd shorter ball rearing up devilishly from the sort of surface Derek Underwood might once have delighted in.

There was little sense of something held back either, as a frustrating few days in waterlogged Potchefstroom had robbed the tourists of valuable preparation time. Clarke was as eager for a bat as his bowlers were to charge in, and their brief combat energised all who witnessed it. Certainly the Australian players were fascinated by the contest, the bowlers' glee matched by the batsmen's winces. The team physio Alex Kountouris and doctor Peter Brukner stood close by, just in case.

Pushing through their paces, familiar patterns emerged. Harris and Siddle were the most precise, Johnson appreciably the fastest, Pattinson and Bird the most in need of more bowling. Henriques surprised by extracting as much life out of the track as anyone, his trajectory digging the ball into the pitch while the others tended to kiss it a little more lightly at a higher pace. Of the sextet, only Harris kept his foot consistently behind the crease.

When Clarke decided he did not wish to risk any more, having worn a couple of blows, the difficulty of the net was emphasised by the next ball after he departed. The unflappable Chris Rogers was struck a prancing blow on the chest by a Harris delivery that climbed and seamed back at him, letting out an involuntary yelp before moving promptly across to the net being used by the spinner Nathan Lyon. No-one was about to question Rogers, and it was enough for Phillip Hughes and Shane Watson to turn on their heels and return to Centurion Park's indoor nets.

The remainder of the session had the pacemen bowling at unguarded stumps, as numerous batsmen tested themselves out against the spin of Lyon, his mentor John Davison and the eager David Warner, who has returned to leg spin after a year's flirtation with less beguiling medium pace. Alex Doolan was a notable absentee from the session due to a bout of flu, but he will not have done his chances any harm by missing a stint in the net Clarke had dared to tread.

Before the session, Harris had expressed the tourists' irritation at the weather that had robbed them of their one and only tour match before the first Test, but balanced that with hope for improving practice surfaces and the possibility of centre wicket training at Centurion ahead of the series opener on February 12.

"It'd be nice to get a couple of good net sessions in and be starting the game tomorrow, but that's the way it is. We have to deal with it," Harris said. "It hasn't been great, but everyone's dealt with it really well and got what they needed. As bowlers we were able to get a decent bowl in the nets down there one day, and a centre wicket.

"It helps, centre wicket - if you're not playing a game - is always better than training in the nets. As a bowler, you haven't got the normal cues that you get when you're out in the middle. There's no net posts, you can feel a bit enclosed in the nets. But hopefully over the next couple there's plans that we can get some center wicket and we can get out there as much as we can. I'm ready to go. If the game was today or tomorrow, I'd be ready to play."

After his brush with danger, so too would Clarke.

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

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