Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane November 20, 2013

Clarke conveys Australia's nerves

Michael Clarke appeared distracted during his pre-series press conference, despite the many reasons he might have had for confidence

Few can recall a nervier Michael Clarke press conference than the one he delivered in Brisbane on the eve of Australia's bid to wrest the Ashes back from England at home. Where usually he is polished, sunny and even given to the odd bout of verbosity, this time Clarke was clipped, terse and taciturn. Tense from the moment he walked into the Champions Room at the Gabba, Clarke's prickliness was so evident that his media minder could be heard offering the aside "be nice and positive" in the seconds after the tapes started rolling.

While it cannot be known exactly why Clarke was so distracted, it was fair to surmise that the imminent start of this series provided good reason for introspection. Clarke, his team and Cricket Australia have reached a moment of enormous import not only to all of their careers, but to the game down under. For some weeks, the hosts have projected an image of stability, calm confidence and greater enjoyment under the mentoring of the newish coach Darren Lehmann. But now, with the curtain about to rise, Clarke's mien conveyed the nervousness that bubbles underneath.

Enough members of Clarke's team experienced the humiliation of a 3-1 defeat in the last home Ashes series in 2010-11 to know that failure is not an option. That result caused major upheaval in Australian cricket, hastening the exit of the captain Ricky Ponting, the coach Tim Nielsen, and the chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch. A second such loss on home shores would leave plenty of CA staff looking over their shoulders, not least the industrious team performance manager Pat Howard, anointed by the Argus review as the single point of accountability for the performance of the national side.

Clarke struck a curious note before the previous series also, stressing that Ashes results would not define his captaincy. These words were in contrast with those of his opposite number Alastair Cook, who acknowledged the seemingly obvious point that yes, he would be historically judged largely on the strength of his results against Australia. This time, Clarke's most expansive response suggested that he could not promise victory, and hoped Australian fans would understand this and remain supportive.

"I'm certainly not going to sit here and promise the world and say everything's going to be different," Clarke said. "It's going to be a tough battle like it was in England, and we have to play our best cricket to have success no matter what conditions you play in. It is nice to be playing in front of our home fans, we've got a lot of support throughout the country and it's going to be great to see so many people turn out and support some fantastic cricket."

Numerous reasons do exist for Clarke and his team to enter this series with a "nice and positive" mindset. Under Lehmann's confident stewardship the dressing room ructions of India and England appear to have settled down, while time in the job has allowed the coach to identify and imbue belief in the players he has deemed worthy. The likes of Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris and even the debutant George Bailey have brought solid character and life experience to the team, balancing the brio of David Warner, the fearlessness of James Faulkner and the youthful enthusiasm of Nathan Lyon.

Craig McDermott, John Davison and Mike Young have been called in to bolster the pace, spin and catching departments, even if the latter's presence seemed to infringe on the role of the incumbent fielding coach Steve Rixon. The team doctor Peter Brukner has maintained his recent success in building up the fitness of Shane Watson, who now appears capable of bowling as well as batting. Former players have buzzed smilingly around the team, including Mark Taylor and Glenn McGrath, while recognition of Haddin's 50th Test has offered an individual motivator in addition to the team imperatives.

Plenty may be drawn also from the surrounds in which the Australians find themselves this week. They have not lost a Test match at the Gabba since falling foul of the West Indies in 1988, and not really looked like doing so for equally as long. So pronounced is the Gabba advantage that England regarded their second innings rearguard four summers ago as near enough to a victory, not only leaving Brisbane on level terms but also exhausting the hosts with two consecutive days in the field. In many ways it is the last fortress of the previous empire, the pacey pitch and early season spot in the schedule contributing to the downfall of many an underdone touring team.

England are underdone by their own precise reckoning, having lost more than two full days of preparatory playing hours and a good deal more training time to rain in Hobart, Sydney and Brisbane. They are also less sure of the final XI for Brisbane than at this point in 2010. Back then the tourists' nominated bowling attack had flown up to Queensland early. Now the identity of England's third seamer and wicketkeeper will only be known for sure at the toss. For an opening partner Alastair Cook will not have Andrew Strauss but Michael Carberry - Joe Root's demotion is a victory for Australia's pacemen even before a ball is bowled.

So there was plenty of reason for Clarke to puff his chest out while speaking publicly about the series to come, thereby enhancing curiosity about why he did not. Perhaps the greatest clue for Clarke's trepidation may be derived from Australia's Test match record in 2013 - played 10, won one, lost seven. It is no sort of foundation for a team, and another loss in Brisbane would shatter much of the rebuilding work that has preceded it. Asked about summoning the belief to win over five days for the first time since the New Year's Test against Sri Lanka in Sydney, Clarke replied: "I think the belief's there and hopefully we'll show that over the next five Test matches."

"I think" is a long way distant from "I know", and Clarke will not know the belief is there until after this Test match has run its course. No wonder he was distracted.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ShutTheGate on November 20, 2013, 21:46 GMT

    @ FFL I can't believe that I'm writing this but I agree with your comment!

    The next captain question is a good one. Bailey is a proven leader but he'd have to score runs to justify his position. Another future captain candidate is Steve Smith but I think it's too early for him to step up.

    If Clarke does fail to win a match this series (which for the record I don't think will happen) we may see Clarke step down as captain, Bailey be promoted (assuming that he's scoring runs) and Steve Smith as Vice Captain with the view of him being captain when Bailey retires or looses form.

    I reasonably confident that it won't come to that.

  • Charlie101 on November 20, 2013, 21:42 GMT

    I wonder if the next Aussie captain will be Bailey and hence his inclusion when his red ball form is not quite strong enough. Bailey has done an excellent job captaining the ODi and T20 teams and is a good leader of men . Clarke's captaincy will not survive another series loss so I am sure he is nervous. Cant wait for it all to start !!!

  • pat_one_back on November 20, 2013, 20:51 GMT

    Humility and understatement on the eve of the Test is highly appropriate given the recent history of these teams, phony wars are over and Clarke has nothing to be cocky about with the public. Recall his speech after the last series, he's understandably worn at answering for defeat, forseeing this possibility is pragmatic not negative or lacking in confidence, Eng are rightly favorites and can ride the wave home with a win in Brisbane whilst an Aust win can be viewed with only cautious relief and mild optimism, only a fool would talk big as Clarke supposedly should have...

  • inthebag on November 20, 2013, 19:43 GMT

    Let's wait and see how is bat does the talking. If his back is OK and he scores like we've seen him do in the past, he'll take the rest of the side with him and Australia wins. No pressure.

  • Front-Foot-Lunge on November 20, 2013, 19:31 GMT

    If Michael Clarke again fails to win a single test match in an Ashes series (or do even worse than Australia did last time), his capaincy would definately be called into question. Alot has been written about his relationships with former players and their reluctance to prolong their stay in the national side, I for one was surprised to see Bailey even picked considering the previous between the two. If Australia lose the 1st test (surely the Gabba road and the rain would play some part in the preceedings) then the writing will most definately be on the wall. The Question is, who would be the next captain after Clarke?

  • sharidas on November 20, 2013, 19:19 GMT

    Though I am not a fan of Michael Clarke, at least this time, I do think his attitude is right, by saying exactly what he feels. Knowing reality and working on it truly is a positive way of handling it. Hypocrisy is out and reality is in……a good sign. Aussies will do good !

  • dummy4fb on November 20, 2013, 19:00 GMT

    Australian cricket seems to have arrived at a point where England were five years ago. The young players are learning the game as twenty twenty players rather than five-day players, the batters are cameo batsmen and the bowlers are used to bowling five overs rather than twenty. The only reliable batsmen seem to be those who have learnt their art playing in the County Championship and are veterans compared with earlier Australian teams. If the ECB stopped Australian players from playing in the County Championship it would finish Australia as a Test Playing Country and they would become like the current West Indies team.

  • dummy4fb on November 20, 2013, 18:32 GMT

    So an Ashes captain is nervous. What a revelation. So what? Anyone who isn't slightly apprehensive at the beginning of an important Test series is rather too laid-back. Results affect careers - this is nothing to be lackadaisical about.

  • Nutcutlet on November 20, 2013, 18:19 GMT

    Clarke, normally so relaxed in front of the cameras, is obviously worried about something. Are he & DL absolutely sure of the team? Is his back back? Is there dissent in the ranks? Is it all a stunt ( what would be gained by this tentative performance then -- nothing!). For Oz to reclaim the Ashes there needs to be an air of security & confidence emanating from the skip on the eve of battle. I want a good tussle with lots of memorable cricket & yes, I want England to win but with Oz playing their best cricket, with both sides at full strength, because that produces cricket worthy of the Ashes.

  • Beertjie on November 20, 2013, 17:39 GMT

    Agree completely @oval77 on (November 20, 2013, 12:15 GMT) The reality is coming back to bite them. I'll settle for 2-2 with a draw at the G. Good point about the toss, @landl47. What will Cook do? Bat I suppose and uutilize Swann later, but it could just as easily misfire. A good toss to lose.

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