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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Xiong on February 7, 2014, 10:07 GMT

    @Jared It's not normal "net time" it's a wet pitch. Clarke is just crazy enough to go and have a bat, without even wearing a chest or arm guard for good measure. It's not really legitimate practice for a test match, nor can you do anything technical. At best it'll be an extra lesson for watching the ball, but even then when it's rearing up horribly off a length even that's not going to do you a lot of good. I'd think that one would consider not getting injured a victory under the circumstances.

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2014, 20:32 GMT

    I'm very concerned to hear about our batsmen chickening out of net time because the bowlers are too good. They're going to be playing the BEST bowling attack in the world by the ICC rankings. And if there's anyone in the Australia set up who can't afford to run away from even Moises Henriques, it's Phil Hughes.

  • Don on February 6, 2014, 11:16 GMT

    Look at that photo -- no arm guard and no chest guard. No wonder he's playing like he's worried about getting hit.

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2014, 10:17 GMT

    An Australian journalist extolling the virtues of an Australian team in a net practice. The Aussie fast bowlers are so good not even their own batsmen want to face them. Sure! What a joke. If this is true, then Australia are in massive trouble. Their bowling line up may be aggressive but South Africa's is more accurate and offers greater variation. Prepare for another 45 all out.

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2014, 6:56 GMT

    SA can't afford to start sluggishly as we did against India. It will just give the Aussies the momentum they need. And that momentum is what destroyed England. We need to be ruthless from ball one. Bowl in the right areas. Make the batsmen play which we didn't do enough against India. And scoring wise, rotate the strike and keep our right/left hand combinations going. It's gonna be a wake up call without Kallis. Let's hope the new recruits can step up

  • Hamish on February 6, 2014, 6:45 GMT

    @barnesy444, said it on Twitter. Also said that Doolan looked good - although I think on a different day. Stated that the best three quicks in the nets were the incumbent quicks, with Bird solid but Patto out of rhythm (which he has been for a while) yet slowly improving

  • Graham on February 5, 2014, 21:23 GMT

    200ondebut; Have you heard the adage its better to remain silent and be considered a full than speak up and remove all doubt. Well fits you to a tee. What a waste of time posting that stupid saying. I guess in your eyes there are no world class players. And if no one can fit that bill, and there has to be a world class then obviously your standard is wrong. You must be an absolute champion player yourself if you don't consider anyone in this series world class. Smith, Amla, Steyn, Philander, AB Devilliers, Clarke, Haddin, Johnson and Harris are all world class. This series will feature the best 6 pace bowlers in the world.

  • Bernard on February 5, 2014, 14:13 GMT

    200ondebut--I'm thinking a much more lively series than Australia-England. Don't know who you've been watching when you say "neither side has any world class players." Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson for starters are world class bowlers. AB de Villiers, Amla and Clarke are clearly on a par with other batsmen around the world and Haddin is the best 'keeper-batsman (on recent form) at the present time. Based on current form, SA and Australia are probably the two best teams in the world right now, and NZ may not be far behind (especially in the shorter formats). "World class" means being able to play under varied conditions around the world, and not just at home on familiar wickets. So, this will be an interesting test for Australia to see whether they can translate their recent drubbing of England at home into a strong performance in SA.

  • Robert on February 5, 2014, 13:41 GMT

    I am guessing a dull boring draw of a series - neither side has any world class players.

  • Basil on February 5, 2014, 13:19 GMT

    I understand why PUP has dubbed his bowling attack as the best in the world. He cant bat against; because his form has been bad of late.

    Different story with SA batsman and bowling; AUS will be lucky if the tests last the full 10 days