Australia v England, 4th Test, Melbourne, 4th day December 29, 2013

Clarke wards off Edgbaston ghosts

Eleven times Steve Waugh sent the opposition in to bat in Tests, and 11 times he won. Ricky Ponting won at his first attempt at the trick in Christchurch in 2005, then lost catastrophically when doing the same at Edgbaston in that year's Ashes series. He never dared to do so again, even on pitches as green as Sydney and Headingley against Pakistan in 2010.

Having observed the contrasting fates of his predecessors, Michael Clarke has tried to forge a path between these two extremes. The Boxing Day Ashes Test was his fourth insertion of his opponents, all occasions arriving at home. His only loss was to New Zealand on a verdant Bellerive strip in 2011, the rare pitch on which bowling is more a necessity than an option.

More open to debate was his decision in Melbourne this week, on a drop-in pitch known for improving as the game progresses but also in circumstances where three previous wins at the toss had allowed Clarke to bat and drive the game from day one. There were times throughout the Boxing Day match that Australia flirted with a result of that kind that so haunted Ponting.

But a stirring counter-attack, aided by the dreadfully fragile disposition of England's increasingly bereft tour party, allowed Clarke to escape the question of "what if". He was able to say after an eight-wicket victory that his decision was tailored to the team he has now, not those of Waugh, Ponting, Mark Taylor or Allan Border.

"If you bowl first you're always judged on your results, so the ups and downs throughout the Test match are irrelevant as a captain in that case," Clarke said. "It's more if you win the Test as a captain you get away with it, if you lose the Test you're going to be hit hard and you're accountable for making that decision.

"But I believe our team aren't the team of the 80s or the 90s. For our team I thought conditions were conducive enough to bowl first, our bowlers have been doing a fantastic job not just in this series but also against England in England. I was confident with the overcast conditions we were confident we were going to be able to bowl England out for a low score."

Confident maybe, but Clarke was far from adamant about bowling first. When he was departing the dressing room on the first morning to toss the coin he left Ryan Harris with the distinct impression he intended to bat once more. When he delivered his verdict to Mark Nicholas for television a few minutes later, he uttered the words "I can't believe I'm saying this, but..."

Between those two conversations, Clarke and the coach Darren Lehmann engaged in discussions in the middle of the ground. As the bowlers marked their run-ups, a final perusal of the pitch appeared to change their minds. It cannot be known whether Clarke changed his view or was cajoled into doing so by Lehmann. Either way, Lehmann admitted it had been a decision made with some trepidation.

"It was the right decision. I would have bowled. And we made it quite late. We were marking out some of the run-ups for the bowlers and we just had a gut feel. The skipper decided to go that way and we fully support that," he said. "We don't like doing it. We'd like to bat first every time. I thought there was enough in the wicket.

"I don't think we bowled as well as we should've in the first innings either and we bowled England out for 255. Overcast conditions and it had a green tinge on it, I think it was the right call. You're judged by the result, but if we lost the game I'd still say the same thing."

Clarke admitted to some worry on the first day when his bowlers did not extract the sort of life he had hoped for. What happened instead was that a slow surface gained a little in pace and hardness across the four days, making strokeplay less challenging in the second innings. England's disintegration had very little to do with the turf, while Chris Rogers and Shane Watson played freely on the final afternoon.

"Was it the right decision or not?" Clarke wondered. "The result will say yes, but after the first five overs on day one, the wicket certainly played better than I expected it to. So I don't think it mattered too much whether I batted first or bowled first."

Having escaped a tight spot in Melbourne, Clarke will feel free to make the call again. He will not be haunted.

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

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