England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 5th day August 25, 2013

Adventure almost vindicated for gambler Clarke

A few more runs on the board more quickly and a few more overs to bowl England out and Australia might almost have had a sniff of victory at The Oval

There are times when conservatism kicks in naturally. For Michael Clarke, that time arrived late on the final day at The Oval. Later than it would have for Ricky Ponting, or Alastair Cook, or MS Dhoni. It came gradually. Fielders had been stationed around the bat when Nathan Lyon was bowling, men in close on both sides, a slip and a leg slip. Slowly but surely, as the wickets didn't come with the rush that he desired, Clarke moved his men back. And back. And back.

By the time Shane Watson came on for his first over of the match, the fours were flowing, Kevin Pietersen was nearing fifty, and the last hour was approaching. Five men went back to the boundary. Then six. No slips. For the first time in a long time, captain Clarke was playing not to win but to draw. Such an approach is not his default setting. If it was, he would not have set England a gettable target, he would have told his men to bat for safety and then reassess.

In Mohali in March, when India were chasing 133 in a minimum of 27 overs, Clarke pushed unsuccessfully for victory. He could have used delaying tactics, slowed his bowlers down, taken time over his fields. That he did not, that he moved the Australians through their overs quite normally led to a situation in which Australia actually bowled nine overs more than were required. It is just possible that they might otherwise have salvaged a draw.

But there, a draw was of no value to Australia, for the series would stay alive only with an Australian win. At The Oval, there was no such series to play for. The urn was gone. Parity could not be achieved. But still there were reasons for Clarke to gamble. His men had not experienced a Test victory since the first week of the year. They had suffered seven losses and one draw in that time. If there was any possibility of giving the team the chance to win, it was worth taking.

3-0, 4-0 does it make a difference? Not in any material sense. Clarke could have been the first Australian captain to lead his team to four defeats in an Ashes series without a win, but that is a manufactured statistic. Other Australian squads have lost Ashes contests 5-1 or 4-1. Others - as Clarke well knows - have lost three Ashes Tests by an innings at home. 3-0, 4-0, this was never going to plumb those depths.

And so it was no surprise that Clarke tried to manufacture a result, tried to force a match that looked like petering out to a draw into a new direction. He sent Watson out to open with David Warner, installed James Faulkner and Brad Haddin as pinch-hitters, and gave Ryan Harris and Mitchell Starc licence to attack. Not all of those moves paid off. With hindsight, perhaps Chris Rogers might have picked the gaps in the field more effectively than others who tried to clear it.

A few more runs on the board more quickly and a few more overs to bowl England out and Australia might almost have had a sniff. By giving England the lure of a 4-0 victory, they enticed enough shots to claim five England wickets. It is difficult to imagine most captains in Clarke's situation allowing the opposition such a chance. Dismissing a team in one session is a remarkable goal but that Australia attempted it in search of that elusive win was in many ways admirable.

It was also symptomatic of Australia's wider approach. Day in, day out, their Test batsmen play at balls they should leave, lack patience, and try to force things. And when that risk-taking behaviour fails, they are inclined to go for double or nothing, chase good money with bad, as gamblers call it. The pay-offs can be great but the losses crippling.

England and South Africa are not the world's best teams by accident. Often they play for safety first, victory second. England certainly did on a dour day three at The Oval. Clarke often talks about consistency; his men will become a better side if they can adopt a little of that mentality in their general approach to Test cricket. On a day like this, such an approach was of little value to Australia. Clarke's gamble was necessary at The Oval.

"That's the way I'd like to see cricket played," Clarke said after the near-loss. "I'd certainly like to lead the Australian team playing in that type of manner. I think we had nothing to lose, obviously 3-0 down. And to me, even if you're not 3-0 down you've got to try to do everything you can to win the Test match. There's obviously the risk of losing and that was there today as well, but I think it was what we had to try and do.

"One team is going to win and one team is going to lose. That's the way I've always played my cricket. I try to win every game. Today there was a risk we might lose but I'm not scared of that risk."

At least, not until Pietersen gets going. Then, even Clarke finds within himself an ounce of conservatism.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sanjeewa on August 28, 2013, 8:11 GMT

    For those who booed Clarke at the presentation,Should've come in the 3rd day for England see England batting.I don't think Cook even with 4-0 lead prior to the this test would've made this kind of declaration.Claerk is the only Aussie in the team that carries legendary Aussie way of playing cricket.He should nurture some youngsters with that sprit.If not world will bored with test cricket with this English Cook way.

  • Tom on August 27, 2013, 13:49 GMT

    By any standards this was a desperate roll of the dice by Clarke and one that all but resulted in loss number 8 out of 9 games.

    But then, Clarke indicated at the beginning of the series that he considers his personal "brand" in broader terms than, you know, the performance of the side that he leads.

    It's lucky for Clarke that the side now has a charismatic coach to pull the dressing room together, because his impulsive, divisive, and disastrously unsuccessful captaincy can't be winning him many friends.

  • Dummy4 on August 27, 2013, 10:22 GMT

    When the opposition is running away with the game, you cannot insert two slips and a gully and not hope for rain/bad light, no matter how forward-thinking you are as a captain. There is a difference between aggression and foolhardiness.

  • Dummy4 on August 27, 2013, 7:06 GMT

    David Warner,Chris Rogers,Shane Watson,Nick Maddinson,Michel Clarke,Steve Smith,Brad Haddin,James Faulkner,Mitchel Johnson,Ryan Harris,Petter Siddle 12 th man Steve Ofkee

    Noo Use Of Spinner In AustrailSquad So Stick With These Team Try To bowl Few Overs Spin Wid Steve Smith and Michel clarke or Go With Steve Ofkee

  • David on August 27, 2013, 6:56 GMT

    @ electric_loco_WAP4 says "Clarke ...the world's best batsman... the best captain in the world...Aus best pace battery in the world ... any 1 or all of Cummins, Patto , Starc will shortly take the no.1 pacer slot from ageing Steyn..."

    At home vs a weak SL, Clarke -for the 1st and only time - was ranked #1 from Nov 22, 2012 to Jan 31, 2013. Amla has been #1 since then. Clarke is back to #5, 47 points below his best. (Amla is also ODI #1: Clarke is #12.) Clarke - NOT the best batsman in the world is also not the best captain. England, India and SA: NOT ONE win. Enough said.

    SA pace bowlers are ranked #1 & 2. Harris, Aus' top ranked is at hisbest ranking & rating ever - 108 below Philander, 123 below Steyn - #1 since 2009!!

    Cummins won't play again. Pattinson lasts 2 tests. Starc is ranked below Kallis! Steyn is 30. Imran Khan played till 40, McGrath 37, Ambrose 37... see the picture, Loco. 7 more years!!

    Loco, you simply have no idea, at all, about cricket. Not a clue.

  • damien on August 27, 2013, 2:18 GMT

    @Jmchilinney, comparing Australia's 6/111 to the England run chase is folly surely someone with you cricket knowledge ( and i'm not being smart saying that) realizes that setting an unknown target is definetly harder than chasing an established benchmark where the target is known from the start. I think anyone who understands the game woud recognize the difference in mindset required to do each of these different scenarios.

  • niaz on August 27, 2013, 1:50 GMT

    In india Pattinson got three wickets in first three overs. Clarke took him off after three overs. India went on to score big. A good captain let the wicket taking bowler bowl at least 5 overs, may be 10. Clark may get an odd wicket out of Warner or Smith once in a blue moon. It really does not matter when they have high bowling average. A good captain has a good handle on statistics and use the odds in his favor. It seems to me Clarke is driven by people's praise for his unusual decisions. Statistically his odd decisions have not be good for the team, but beneficial for the drama some fans/media are looking for.

    Cook is a no-nonsense captain. Harris, Pattinson, Siddle etc. look more dangerous than Anderson. Cook managed to support him and Broad and look what he got the best out of them.

  • Lee on August 27, 2013, 0:24 GMT

    Talk about mixed messages. How can you criticise your own team by suggesting that they don't have enough fight and then undo all of their hard work by putting them in a likely losing position. To readily risk losing for the sake of a miracle win tells the players to be aggressive at all times. How can you then criticise a young batsmen taking a dash at a wide ball and getting caught in the slips. 'Yep, son, go for the win at all costs for it doesn't matter if we lose, but by the way, if you get out trying to score quicker runs, well you are going to get dropped.' What does it matter if Australia collapses in the 4th innings, they weren't going to win anyway? What did more to give Eng a chance, a declaration or a series of rash shots by the Aussies? Clarke, Lehman and Warne have the same problem in that they view the game as black or white. They have got to be smarter than that. Clarke is no great captain any more than Roger Ramjet was a complex superhero.