Adventure almost vindicated for gambler Clarke
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