Sri Lanka v Australia, 3rd Test, Colombo, 5th day September 20, 2011

At last, a captain's knock

Michael Clarke's poise as a leader has been striking, exhibiting a superb feel for the game. But he waited until the final day of the series to produce the sort of spinal contribution that can define a captain

Australia waited a long time for an innings like this. Not since January 2010 had the Test captain put his stamp on a match with a century, a double by Ricky Ponting against Pakistan in Hobart. Not since October 2004, his 151 on debut against India in Bangalore, had Michael Clarke made a hundred quite so important to the outcome of a series.

There were mitigating factors. The pitch was too amiable for a fifth day deck, with the exception of a handful of deliveries that spat out of the rough. The bowling was nowhere near the standard of some of the attacks Clarke has had to face, not least the parsimonious Englishmen who so dismantled his game outside off stump during the Ashes last summer. The display was not chance-less, as Prasanna Jayawardene twice spilled opportunities to complete stumpings from the crafty, later rewarded bowling of Rangana Herath. And the match faded to a bore draw, unedifying in its anti-climax.

But these environmental and technical concerns paled next to the mental and the social. Clarke had to show he could bat for his team, to save a match and preserve a series lead. Well as Clarke has led in this series, including an admirably bold 60 in the second innings in Galle, his overall batting record is that of a talented individual more so than a deeply committed team man. Seven years ago in Bangalore Clarke had hinted at greatness, but most of his efforts since have fallen short of that promise. Until today he had perhaps not made another century of similar resonance.

By Clarke's own reckoning, his three best innings before this Test stood out for reasons of personal circumstances. A century in the West Indies in 2008 after he had returned home to grieve with his former girlfriend after she lost her father, and 168 in Wellington last year after he had made another dash home to end that same relationship. Then there was 136 against England in the second Test of 2009 at Lord's, when he struck the ball with rare crispness in a comfortably lost cause.

None of those efforts carried the same burden of team performance that Clarke felt when he walked out to join Phillip Hughes on the fourth afternoon at the fall of Ponting's wicket. At the time the visitors led by only 31 with three wickets down, and the match could still slip into Sri Lankan hands without batting of due care and attention. Indeed, Australia had lately made a habit of surrendering at the wrong times in Test series, allowing opponents such as England, India and even Pakistan to capitalise on wandering minds and leaden feet. Clarke knew all this as he started his innings, playing carefully at first to reach stumps. Having done so, he then spoke frankly of the need to stand up with the bat on day five.

Hughes departed soon after resumption, ominously to the first over of spin. These circumstances had becalmed and disheartened Australian teams before, and decisive action was required. Clarke, having played himself back in, provided it in the most commanding fashion imaginable. His first 24 runs occupied 80 balls - his next 76 a mere 59. Time and again Clarke advanced to drive against the spin of Herath, spicing things up by cutting anything pitched fractionally short. At each stroke Sri Lankan heads sank lower, their hopes of a shared series receding markedly with each Clarke dance down the pitch. He went to his century with another lofted drive over mid-on, and delivered a joyous upper cut in the direction of Australia's dressing room. It was a breathtaking way to secure a series.

To lose this match, after Angelo Mathews' unseemly dawdle to a first-innings century, would have been an injustice for a team that had fought so hard and so intelligently across three Tests. Clarke knew this as much as anyone, having driven an emphasis on elbow grease and basics ever since he was appointed to replace Ponting at the conclusion of Australia's World Cup campaign.

His poise as a leader has been striking, exhibiting a superb feel for the game and a knack for initiative. In the field he is both energetic and authoritarian, leading with his brain but also superb hands at slip - see the catches to dismiss Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene in the first and second Tests. Even in the series' final over, Clarke saw an opportunity, giving Nathan Lyon a look at the new ball. Clarke's batting on this tour has been far more certain than at any stage of last summer, but he waited until the final day of the series to produce the sort of spinal contribution that can define a captain.

Having made that contribution, Clarke can now look with a clear head towards the next series and the next objective. South Africa will provide a far tougher proposition than Sri Lanka, albeit in conditions more familiar. The Australian team is not without questions, from the lack of significant runs for Ponting and Shane Watson in this series to the continued fitness concerns for Ryan Harris, by a distance Clarke's most incisive fast man in these Tests. Mitchell Johnson's struggle for wickets cannot be ignored either. Trent Copeland and Lyon have made creditable starts to international cricket, but neither have made places entirely their own. And Phillip Hughes, despite a fine hundred in the second innings here, will next face a Proteas attack determined to learn from its first joust with his idiosyncratic technique in 2009.

Clarke's Australia have much still to do as a team, just as Clarke has much still to achieve as a batsman. But on this day at the SSC, their progress was significant and synergistic. It had been a long time since an Australian captain had so influenced proceedings. For Clarke it was worth the wait.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on September 23, 2011, 16:39 GMT

    As to my previous comment, Australia can be at times boring to watch. But the Aussie way of playing cricket when they are at their best has always been emphasis fitness, being very professional,efficient and disciplined. In the 1990s when they were no.1 yes they had a lot of talented cricketers, like Warne, Mcgrath, Mark Waugh etc. Who were terrific to watch. But they also placed high importance on those values. I know Aussie fans won't care if their team was boring or exciting as long as they were successful on the cricket field. When Australia plays well in cricket they are like a German army Infantry Unit in WWII professional,efficient and disciplined. Evidence of this tour of Sri Lanka suggest. That Aussie cricket is on the mend again. You have to respect the way the Aussies play their cricket sometimes even if your backing the opposition. Like they have done on this tour of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is not an easy place to come and win a test series.

  • Dummy4 on September 22, 2011, 5:33 GMT

    Never mind the fact that Clarke silenced his critics in the most elegant & convincing way possible; the *real* highlight of the series, for me, was his captaincy. In his first three Tests as Aussie skipper, he's already displayed more imagination, daring & versatility than Ricky Ponting managed throughout his entire captaincy career. It won't be too long before the Aussies are snapping at the heels of England & South Africa: Hughes seems, at last, to have thrown off his self-imposed shackles, both Marsh & Khawaja ooze Test class & Copeland looks eminently capable of filling the McGrath/Clark role so conspicuous by its absence during the thrashing we gave you in last winter's Ashes. All Australia have to do now is move Marsh up to open with Hughes, shunt Watson down to his rightful position at 6, replace the ineffectual Ponting with Khawaja or Ferguson, bring in Paine & O'Keefe for Haddin & Lyon, & they'll have the makings of a team that can at least give us a run for our money in 2013.

  • Basil on September 21, 2011, 23:47 GMT

    I agree with hris. There is probably no more versatile batsman in the world than Mike Hussey. I know a players aura grows once they retire but I would go as far to say that he is probably the most versatile batsmen that has ever played the game. .... and to all those Indian fans out there, I am not saying he is better than your god Tendulkar, although I'd rather have Hussey in my team.

  • Rajaram on September 21, 2011, 11:51 GMT

    @landl47 I am glad you've made a comment on my comment - that Michael Clarke is the best batsman in the world currently.Records do not reveal the Class of a batsman - see who I am comparing him with - Mark Waugh and Damien Martyn who carressed the ball to the boundary.Elegant, Sublime. Like Ricky Ponting in his prime. Show me ONE batsman who plays pace AND spin as well as Michael Clarke.

  • Paul on September 21, 2011, 8:58 GMT

    I think Jonesy2 said Clarke was the classiest batsman in the world. Classiest doesn't mean best - perhaps "most stylish" would have been a better choice of words by Jonesy2. The best current batsman who has played more than 50 Tests is Jacques Kallis (see his average) but there is a long list who I would prefer to watch at the crease.

  • Michael Ponnudurai on September 21, 2011, 7:18 GMT

    Aus did exceedingly well to score 480+ on 4th & 5th days wicket that was helping Herath right through the Aus second innings. Overall, Aus dominated this series and having done in conditions quite alien to them, was splendid. However, for them to continue doing well they will have to make some changes. My suggestions are bring in Mitchell Starc in place of Johnson. I see Starc as a left handed Mcgrath. Make Marsh open the innings with Phil Hughes and take Shane Watson to no.6. His ability to counter attack or score quickly as per situation will help in that position. He has been struggling in the opening slot and that is not good for Aus against good teams. Bring in Paine at 7 for Tests and utilise Haddin in ODIs and T20s. Mitchell Starc, Ryan Harris/Siddle, Copeland, Lyon, should form the bowling attack. Johnson should be made to go through at least one season of Sheffield Shield and demonstrate consistency in line, and penetration, before being considered again as back up

  • Ameya on September 21, 2011, 6:26 GMT

    What people don't realize is that he took a left armer bowling in rough areas. Yes he could have padded away but the runs wouldn't have come and the situation demanded batting runs as well as time.Remember the Ashley Giles incident ,Sach didn't take him on ,on better bangalore wicket because its just too risky.Here where it was jumping off the rough to dismiss the bowler and take your team through is wonderful even a herculean effort.Don't think anyone in English team or for that matter a south african nor Indian has produced a knock of that quality in Sri Lanka to win the series for the country.Still Think Copeland has been the find for the tour because a he stifled runs from an end and made Harris an even potent weapon than he is.He brought stability to the line up which was missing in ashes where too many loose balls were on offer on both ends.

  • Subba on September 21, 2011, 6:22 GMT

    The seond best batmsman in this Australian team after Hussey is Clarke, but my word, this was a true captain's knock. Unlike his predecessor, Clarke delivers under pressure, when the team needs it. Secondly, this time Ponting hasnt even turned in a "Dead Rubber Specialist" knock, like he used to before. Next change in the order is for Clarke to move ahead of Ponting in the order - if they still stick to Ponting, that is :)

  • Hrishikesh on September 21, 2011, 5:57 GMT

    @landl47 clarke may not be but mike hussey is the best for me. name another player who is as adaptable, versatile as mr cricket. can play equally well against quick and spinners from bouncy WACA to galle dustbowl. his awesome subcontient record is proof. Who else can bat from number one in seaming conditions in Test to number 7 in t20s and be equally effective. He can grind like a dravid, can play with the tail in test like a laxman, can finish an innings in ODIs like Bevan, can whack late in t20s like a raina or dhoni. Not trying to boast but surely there have been hardly one or 2 players like him in the last 20 years. This all is not some what Ifs. he has actually done all this. Only problem is he was unlucky not to picked for oz a long time ago bcuz of the dominant team oz had. even then i think he is better than a bevan, hayden, langer, martyn, clarke, waugh and even Ponting.

  • Richard on September 21, 2011, 5:36 GMT

    @OutCast@Sageleaf@mrgupta:-This article is about Michael Clarke. Kindly take your Sri Lanka Vs India feud elsewhere.

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