England v Australia, 2nd Investec Test, Lord's July 17, 2013

Pensive Clarke steels himself for Lord's

At the scene of one of his finest innings, Michael Clarke is about to embark upon perhaps the most pivotal Test match of his career

Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin, captain and deputy, were Australia's last two men to leave the Lord's nets on the eve of the second Test.

Haddin was jovial as he walked for the pavilion, looking ahead to the chance of reversing the painfully narrow result at Trent Bridge. But Clarke was the personification of pensive. Lost in his own thoughts and staring straight ahead, he appeared to be steeling himself for a match that can be argued to be the most critical of his captaincy and career so far.

It was a starkly contrasting image from that portrayed at his pre-match press conference and spoke more truthfully of Australia's position than any amount of sunny rhetoric. Whatever good feelings emerged from the Nottingham Test, it was still the tourists' fifth consecutive Test match loss, a sequence of under-performance last witnessed in 1984.

And whatever confidence Clarke derived from a team display that showed far greater determination and unity than anything served up in India, it was also a match in which he wrestled unsuccessfully with two old adversaries - the No. 4 position and the patience of England's bowlers.

Australia cannot win this series, nor get close to doing so, if Clarke continues to be corralled in the manner he was at Trent Bridge. While in the first innings he was the victim of James Anderson's very own fast-medium version of the ball of the century, in the second Clarke struggled for his usual sprightly timing and momentum. Much as they did in 2010-11, England succeeded in reducing Clarke's scoring areas, forcing him to play straighter and sapping his patience. As Alastair Cook put it: "we were happy with the way we bowled to a lot of their batsmen."

For his part, Clarke said the swift starts that characterised many of his best innings at No. 5 had been largely reactive to the kind of bowling he had received, and indicated that patience was just as important as proactivity. At Trent Bridge he had been kept quiet, and did not wish to force the pace unnecessarily on a surface not amenable to fast scoring. But the sight of Clarke scratching around was a source of as much worry for Australia as Ashton Agar's fearless first innings had been a tonic.

"I think it varies because mainly as a batsman you're reacting to what the bowler is doing, not the other way around and you're not always in control so a lot is determined by where they bowl the ball," Clarke said. "That determines how quickly I score, I guess. It looks to me that England certainly are working on a plan to dry me up because through my career there have been times when I got off to good starts.

Having glimpsed uncertainty in English eyes at times in Nottingham, Clarke and Australia must now go on to establish a foothold in the series.

"To me as a batter it doesn't make much difference. To make 100 or 200 you've got to bat for long periods so whether you're 10 off 10 balls or 10 off 50 balls, it doesn't matter. I think it's just about batting, enjoy batting. The longer you're out there, the more chance you have of scoring runs. Patience and wait for that bad ball."

Four years ago at Lord's, Clarke played a hand he still regards as close to his very best. Setting out in pursuit of an impossible 522 for victory, he punched and glided to 136, accompanied for most of the way by Haddin in a bold fourth innings counterattack against high quality bowling by Anderson, Andrew Flintoff and Graeme Swann. That day Clarke motored to 22 for 15 balls before settling in. He recalled the occasion dimly because it concluded in defeat, but noted motivation to make a score in the chase because he had failed first up. So it is again this time.

"I remember losing the Test match," Clarke said. "I remember not making any in the first innings and needing to make a score in the second innings. The reason you play is to have success as a team and we didn't win that Test. If I can get a start hopefully I'll go on to a big score."

A substantial tally from Clarke can shape the outcome of the match, which must be won if Australia are to maintain any serious hope of claiming the series. On a pitch not quite so dry as Nottingham but already showing some evidence of cracking, the need for a major first innings tally is critical, particularly after the Australians kicked away a chance to pressure England by slipping to 117 for 9 in response to their hosts' mediocre 215 on day one of the series.

Another such decline would almost certainly lead to a heavy defeat and set Australia on another ruinous path, no matter how much the unity of the team has improved in the days since Darren Lehmann replaced the litigious Mickey Arthur as coach. Having glimpsed uncertainty, if not fear, in English eyes at times in Nottingham, Clarke and Australia must now go on to establish a foothold in the series.

Anything else will undo much of the team's recent progress, damaging the newfound unity that contrasts so visibly to the poisonous atmosphere depicted by Arthur in his leaked compensation claim. Those revelations have not overly affected a team that has largely moved on from the divisions suggested by Arthur, helped in large part by the appointment of Lehmann and the return of Haddin. But no team's foundations are so solid that they can withstand repeated doses of losing.

In addition to "Mickeyleaks", preparations for Lord's have also been punctuated by the appearances of a quartet of luminaries from brighter days, as Glenn McGrath, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne have blessed the team with their presence and the odd snatch of advice. In 1989 and 1997, Waugh and McGrath turned on defining displays at the home of cricket. In 2013, Clarke desires the same. His stony expression said as much.

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

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