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The upward curve of the Australian team over the period of Michael Clarke's captaincy has been by no means an accidental occurrence
April 27, 2012
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 hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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