West Indies v Australia, 3rd Test, Roseau, 5th day

A year in the life

The upward curve of the Australian team over the period of Michael Clarke's captaincy has been by no means an accidental occurrence

Daniel Brettig at Windsor Park

April 27, 2012

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Nathan Lyon and Michael Clarke celebrate a wicket, West Indies v Australia, 3rd Test, Roseau, 5th day, April 27, 2012
The Australians are a more ebullient and enthusiastic group under Michael Clarke's leadership © Associated Press
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Played 14, won nine, lost two, drawn three. By these bare numbers Michael Clarke has established himself as a successful Test captain of Australia, ending a long sequence of cricket a little more than a year after he took the job from Ricky Ponting. It was a tired touring team that allowed West Indies to swing their way to within 75 runs of a distant target on the final morning, but the Australians' unstinting earlier efforts ensured that the Caribbean tour and the elongated "summer" of eight months' duration ended on a note of victory.

In the finish it was the captain himself who did much of the heavy lifting, claiming the second five-wicket haul of his Test career with left-arm spin of the kind that Allan Border once employed with similar success against West Indies. Clarke's other major tally was a freakish 6 for 9 on a Mumbai pitch that existed in name only, and here he had to work for his wickets on a surface that offered generous turn but not the spiteful bounce or grubbers that fill batsmen with fourth-innings fear. It was fitting that Clarke played such a role in bringing the team home to a 2-0 series success, for the upward curve of the Australian team over the period of his captaincy has been by no means an accidental occurrence.

As a batsman, a tactician and occasionally a bowler, Clarke is always keeping the game moving, always looking for opportunities for runs or wickets, always pushing his team towards greater efforts. Clarke's players have taken on his appetite for meticulous preparation and hard training, preserving their bodies as he must do in order to stay ahead of a troublesome back that has humbugged him numerous times over his career. They are also a more ebullient and enthusiastic group under his leadership, as much because they know their leader is a shrewd one as because he is a cheerful one. Winning helps too.

Since he walked out to toss the coin with Sri Lanka's then captain Tillakaratne Dilshan in September last year, Clarke has taken the team through plenty of peaks and also a few notable troughs. It was those that he pointed to as critical to the building of the team's character, particularly the way the team found a way to regather itself after the trauma of being razed for 47 by South Africa in Cape Town, squaring the series in Johannesburg within a week. There was also a galling defeat to New Zealand in Hobart as the team settled under a new captain, coach and selection panel.

"Cape Town showed us how quickly things can change for the worse and then to be able to pull off a win in Jo'burg - and we're talking about a very strong Test cricket team in their own backyard - so to be able to level that series was a great learning curve for us," Clarke said. "And we probably saw a little of that again against New Zealand. There are highs and lows in this game and you're going to experience both, whether you like it or not individually as a player. And that gave us the opportunity as a team to see that it doesn't matter what opposition you play against, if you're not at your best, you're going to get beaten. And we continue to learn, especially, from those two games, from Cape Town and Hobart.

"I've been very lucky to have some other great leaders around me, wonderful support staff who have played a part in me having success. And the captain is only as good as his stock. The players have played so well that they've made my job so much easier and they've put me in a position where it allows me to take a risk, or to declare, or to bowl a certain bowler because I have the confidence of the boys in that change-room. So I've enjoyed every minute of it. I'll look forward to having a bit of a break now."

There are still plenty of flaws evident in the team Clarke is leading. The batting is the cause of most doubt, as the opening combination of David Warner and Ed Cowan has not yet reached the level required, Ricky Ponting's future in the game is a series-by-series proposition and Shane Watson has yet to prove he is capable of scoring centuries at No.3, an essential requirement for any top-class performer in that position. Beneath them, the next group of young batsmen is struggling to attain the heights they had initially promised - Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh among them. This point of weakness will require plenty of considered discussion between Clarke and the selection panel but also Rod Marsh as the designated director of coaching among the states, for South Africa and England in particular are unlikely to be as accommodating in future series as India were during the home summer.

However the major strength Clarke has been able to call on across his first year in charge is a battery of pace bowlers that is burgeoning with speed, swing and promise. Older practitioners like Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus have learned new ways to succeed, and younger striplings including Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins have all shown how formidable they can become. Further back are the likes of Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Coulter-Nile. Bowlers, it is so often said, win Test matches, and for now Clarke is well stocked with options.

He also now has a spin bowler he can rely on in most situations, as Nathan Lyon builds his stamina and savvy on foreign pitches. While Lyon has not dominated every innings, and struggled notably in some, he is establishing the sort of record that very few Australian offspin bowlers have been able to boast of. None have surpassed Ashley Mallett's 132 from 38 Tests at 29.84, yet with 42 at 27.83 in 13 matches, Lyon is on his way. Most heartening in his growth is how much Clarke and the coach Mickey Arthur have worked to let him develop without being unfairly exposed by batsmen or critics. The lessons of a misspent first four years after Shane Warne's retirement, with slow bowlers tossed about like boats in Dominica's impending hurricane season, appear to have been learned.

The most significant transition that lies ahead for Clarke and his team is the choice of wicketkeeper for next summer and the Ashes series beyond it. Matthew Wade's contribution in the Caribbean was meritorious, for how he gleaned lessons from early struggles to capitalise in supreme fashion in Dominica. While his batting at Windsor Park will be the most memorable element of his work, Wade's keeping has also progressed greatly. Brad Haddin, meanwhile, sits at home with his family, older and wiser and a valued member of the team even though he was forced to leave it behind by difficult personal circumstances. Clarke does not want to lose Haddin, but he does want his team to move forward. His first 12 months in charge provide the strongest possible evidence of that fact.

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

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Posted by Meety on (April 29, 2012, 6:08 GMT)

@Jono Makim - agreed re: Kumble. I actually don't want Lyon to go down the path of a doosra though. I think it will only get "dumb" batsmen out. On a classic offies technique (which I believe Lyon is), I think it would be easy to pick. I think Doosr'a only really work if you have a "unique" bowling technique that makes full use of elbow extensions, (I won't go any further down that path for fear of what the debate will turn into!!!!!!)

Posted by   on (April 29, 2012, 5:55 GMT)

@Meety, the big difference was that while Kumble didn't turn it a lot, he could send it both ways... I'm a Lyon fan, but there's a lot of room for improvement, meanwhile there's also a lot of things he aready has right. Namely, if he is to become a top tier spinner, the likes of Murali, Ajmal etc, he needs to develop a ball that either goes straight through or a doosra. I think this is the final piece in the puzzle for Lyon, the sort of weaponry that takes a bowling average from 28-30 down to 23-25. What he already has on his side is very good stock bowling. Warnie always talked about young spinners coming through to firstly master their stock ball. Lyon has that and it's well flighted, accurate and he is able to adjust his pace to the conditions. The other thing I really like about him is that when the conditions suit him he takes the wickets and does the job he is meant to do, he performs his function in the team very well. He also looks to be level headed and big hearted!

Posted by mukesh_LOVE.cricket on (April 29, 2012, 5:38 GMT)

@landl47 -- completely agree with you , nice to see some impartial views , usually its Indian , Australian and England's fan boys talking down other teams ... Australia urgently needs to find a long term replacement for ponting and hussey , also watson at no.3 in tests is a joke

Posted by   on (April 29, 2012, 4:03 GMT)

South Africa can't seem to put the final nail in he coffin to beat Australia. Comparing the last 3 series, they have a level record at 4-4 in 8 games played with SA winning in 08, Aus winning in 09 and the series drawn last year. SL always stutter when playing Australia but have no such trouble when playing against other teams at home. They also mount a challenge to other teams away, so I think it is the mindset of the SL test cricketers who make them think that they are playing the best nation in the world. India back to its own ways of being strong at home and struggling away. Pakistan have had a resurgence whilst England have been complacent. WI and NZ are just above the minnows and Australia are improving since Clark took over. This aussie summer could be exciting.

Posted by chicko1983 on (April 29, 2012, 0:58 GMT)

@BillyCC, also forgotten In that 96 by SA is that they lost their last 9 for 47 as well so they did marginally better than Australia yet they were playing at home.

Australia are the best team in the world right now, no doubt about it, and the rest of the nations will be playing catch up for another 15 years when we regain the no1 ranking next year. the worst period of Aussie cricket is well and truly over, at least people can now say they have seen Australia when they were ranked 5th because it won't happen again for a long time!

Posted by Meety on (April 28, 2012, 21:47 GMT)

@Harry_Kool - one of the criticisms Lyon cops is that he doesn't spin the ball, didn't hurt Kumble in getting over 500 test wickets!!!!!

Posted by BillyCC on (April 28, 2012, 21:36 GMT)

@gimme-a-greentop, agree with your assessment of Joburg. I just find it interesting that no one remembers the 96 but everyone remembers the 47. 96 also means that the South African batting can also struggle on bowling friendly wickets. Therefore, I am not convinced that they will have it their own way in both England and Australian conditions.

Posted by landl47 on (April 28, 2012, 13:40 GMT)

I think Clarke has done a fantastic job and his captaincy is directly responsible for the turn in Australia's fortunes. He has brought purpose and imagination to the side, neither of which were apparent under Ponting, and his upbeat style and support of his players has got the best out of them. As the article says, there are challenges ahead. Ponting and Hussey are near the end of their careers with no obvious replacements and the top 3 look very vulnerable. However, the bowling looks good and I agree with Meety that Lyon has started his career very well. Good bowling and fielding can make up for ordinary batting, as the WI series has shown. Surely Wade must keep his spot; his batting, keeping and age all are in his favor over Haddin. A good year for Australia- great to see for those of us who relish the traditions of the game. Looking forward to another tremendous Ashes battle in 2013.

Posted by maddinson on (April 28, 2012, 13:11 GMT)

The improvement is not a surprise, given the quality of young fast bowlers in the country. Batting is a concern for Australian cricket, I hope likes of Maddinson, Burns, patterson and Lynn perform better than inconsistent Ferguson, S Marsh and Hughes. Khawaja is a class player and CA should give him a decent run.

Posted by Bollo on (April 28, 2012, 11:46 GMT)

@Sriraj G.S - yep, right with you there. The article is entitled `A year in the Life` and clearly states that the subject up for discussion is `the Australian cricket team over the period of Michael Clarke`s captaincy`. Surely Clarke`s first series as captain is a fairly obvious and logical place to start - don`t even need to go to uni to work that one out. Now, Sachin becoming a member of parliament, well different story there...

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Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.
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