Clarke reasserts his credentials
Michael Clarke passed his latest audition to be Australia's next Test captain, but he couldn't turn his return to form into a match-saving vigil. After Ricky Ponting failed again, taking his series tally to 70 runs in four innings, Clarke steadied the side with an 80 that mixed bouts of flair with determined defence and risk.
But just as he was preparing for stumps he was given a final assignment of overcoming six balls from Kevin Pietersen. He glanced the second straight to short leg and Alastair Cook, a regular target throughout his innings. There was no walking and the replay showed he had struck it clearly, forcing him to depart with many of the hopes of his team.
The edge provided another trying episode in a difficult year for Clarke, who has been groomed for the A-list and the Australian leadership since he first emerged as a precocious teen. He has already proven himself as a very good batsman at five-day level, but on the verge of becoming a great he has stumbled. The past two series against Pakistan and India were uncharacteristically lean and this one started the same way with 9 in Brisbane and 2 in the first innings here.
Questions were starting to alter from "Is Clarke the next captain?" to "Is Clarke's spot in danger?" Clarke will be the next Test leader, a title he could assume as early as the conclusion of this series. Unless Ponting can avoid a third Ashes defeat, Clarke will be the man to build the next generation around.
His run drought was always a temporary trough, but the issue was compounded by a persistent back injury that flared in the lead-up to the opening Test. With every low score and uncertain step, in the nets or in the middle, Clarke's batting wobbles were highlighted.
So it was crucial that when he entered after Ponting's edge he showed he was the man to steer through a crisis. With the team in its current state, there are likely to be many setbacks to deal with when he takes over full-time. Australia began their second innings 375 behind and had to survive on a pitch providing significant turn as well as conditions that were encouraging for reverse swing.
Simon Katich had edged Graeme Swann behind and Ponting's bright start burned when he was tricked by one not spinning as much as he had calculated. Australia were 2 for 98 and England were closing in like the storm to the north of the city.
Clarke's first ball, from Swann, was glanced for a confident single, and he followed up with a fierce straight drive on the up for four off Stuart Broad. When he hit a three through cover for his next effort there was a fear he was following the same shooting-star path as his captain. Having gained the early confidence an out-of-form player craves, he settled back to get himself in.
England think he has a weakness against the short ball so he was required to deal with that threat at one end. At the other he danced forward or leaned back to Swann. A Broad short ball was pulled, almost off the front foot in his usual style, but the next danger was a 136kph bouncer that was ducked in awkward fashion.
One of the reasons Mitchell Johnson was dropped was because he couldn't fix his technique in the middle, but for a batsman the remedy has to arrive with real runs. Shortly before the rain break after tea, Clarke was in good enough touch to cut James Anderson through two men at gully.
To the spin his feet are light, and his first instinct is to skip down the wicket. This gives him a chance to drive full-tosses or half-volleys, while taking the catching men almost out of play. In India in October, his judgment to the slow men disappeared, so starting against Swann was a severe challenge, especially with four close-in fielders pegged around him.
The suffocating attention didn't stir him and when necessary he was content to wait on Swann to get off strike. He played one crisp cover drive to the boundary but was more mouse than cat. That scene was reversed after he spent almost an hour off the ground while the storm passed.
Clarke returned with slightly too much energy, gliding Anderson for a boundary to bring up his half-century and then pulling the next delivery for four. Swann was taken for seven in two attempts in a repeat of Clarke's initial burst, but this ride was scarier. He survived one referral after being given out caught-behind on 67, and quickly swept one hard into the back of Cook.
Late in the day Cook was hit on the knee on the full from another swipe, although it was too mean to call it a chance. The locals were now wishing their man to survive until stumps, but he couldn't quite get there. His dismissal changed the nature of the contest in the moments it took to confirm his dismissal.
Despite Clarke's status as a highly accomplished Test run-maker, he is derided as an upstart who has forgotten his roots and drowns himself in bling and tattoos. He's also the one with the poor Twenty20 strike-rate. The relationship with the public is so delicate that he apologised on twitter as soon as he was allowed to use his phone. Even in Clarke's preferred format people don't remember his fine 136 in the second innings at Lord's, which delayed the first loss in the 2009 Ashes, as much as his double failure at The Oval in the decider.
Saving such a critical home Test would have elevated Clarke's status significantly as a batsman and a future leader, but he left with his mission half-finished. What he has done is give Australia a chance. What happens next depends as much on the weather as the remaining batsmen.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo