News Analysis

Di Venuto tries to mend Clarke's ways

Australia's unassuming batting coach Michael di Venuto has the responsibility for rousing into form a batsman of far greater accomplishment than his own

Coaching can throw up numerous intriguing and bizarre dynamics, not least when a journeyman player and now mentor finds himself trying to solve the problems of a man acknowledged as one of his country's great performers. It is not always easy. As the longtime Western Australia coach Daryl Foster once observed, his path to coaching the national team was forever blocked by that old rejoinder, "How many Tests did you play?"
For Michael Di Venuto, Australia's batting coach, the unvarnished surrounds of Derbyshire County Cricket Club are something like an English home, its minor key setting also similar to that of his Tasmanian homeland. For Australia's captain Michael Clarke, such venues are footnotes, minor junctures in a career of bold, broad brushstrokes on the game's biggest and brightest stages. Had he been scoring runs, it is highly doubtful Clarke would even have played.
Yet in the week between Lord's and Edgbaston, it is the unassuming Di Venuto who has primary responsibility for rousing into form a batsman of far greater accomplishment than his own. Clarke's career numbers stand for favourable comparison to just about anyone in the game; Di Venuto's handful of ODI matches reaped him 241 runs and a pair of half centuries. When discussing Clarke, there is a sense of enormous respect from mentor for pupil.
"We'd like him to spend some more time in the middle obviously," Di Venuto said of Clarke. "He's had a couple of good starts in the Test matches, a caught and bowled to Moeen Ali up in Cardiff and a 32 not out in the second innings at Lord's - I know circumstances were we were setting up a declaration. He would like some more time in the middle, there's no doubt about that. He's meticulous in his preparation, he's playing well in the nets, he's preparing well, he just needs a bit of luck. I'm sure a big score is not too far away.
"We talk regularly like with all the batsmen. He's pretty set in his ways what he wants to do, he knows how to go about it and how to get himself back to scoring runs. You can't do that in the nets, you've got to do that out in the middle and at the moment, it's not quite happening for him out in the middle. As happens every now and then as batsmen, you go through little patches where things don't quite click. But he's not too far away."
Di Venuto's blend of simple advice, plenty of balls whirred down with the "dog thrower" and positive reinforcement has worked in numerous instances since he was chosen for the job by the team performance manager Pat Howard and former coach Mickey Arthur during the summer of 2012-13. Most notably, his reassurance of Steven Smith that he was "not out of form, just out of runs" early the following summer has reaped untold riches since, as the vice-captain chose to persist with an essentially sound method rather than tinkering.
Nevertheless, the troubles confronting Clarke are of vaster dimensions than the brief blip in Smith's progress 18 months ago. He has not made a century in any form of the game since he ignored back and hamstring problems to score a statuesque hundred against India in Adelaide last December. Moreover, Clarke's once dancing feet have become worryingly leaden, leaving him a simple target for England's bowlers thus far.
"Most teams these days and most batters know how people are trying to get them out. There's no secrets running around, their plans are pretty stuck in place, so we work around that and try to combat that."
Michael di Venuto on dealing with the strategies of opposition bowlers
The tactic of setting a short leg and even leg gully, then probing outside off stump as Clarke hangs back in anticipation of bouncers has worked all too easily in recent times. At Cardiff, Clarke's bat wafted without anything like due care and attention, while at Lord's his pull shot at Mark Wood was the reactive last resort of a batsman entirely unable to get the bowlers operating on his terms.
"Most teams these days and most batters know how people are trying to get them out," Di Venuto said. "There's no secrets running around, their plans are pretty stuck in place, so we work around that and try to combat that. As we do when we bowl, we want to try to push people back and then nick them off with the fuller ball. That's a basic plan the majority of people in world cricket use."
True as Di Venuto's words are, they serve mainly to make Clarke's predicament look still worse. How can a player of such accomplishment fail to find a way around such tactics unless his technique and mentality are less than optimal? There is no evidence of physical infirmity, as hamstring surgery has freed up Clarke's legs while the physio Alex Kountouris has not needed to work anywhere near as much on the captain's back as at other times.
"I thought he looked pretty good in the World Cup final for his 70-odd not out, no difference," Di Venuto said. "And he looked pretty good when he couldn't move when he scored a hundred when his back was no good against India. He's moving around, he seems unrestricted and he hasn't had a problem since, so I certainly don't think that's any reason why he hasn't been able to get a big score of late."
One man who has helped Clarke at times down the years is Ricky Ponting. Despite their difficult relationship as captain and deputy, Ponting was often seen to be watching Clarke in the nets and assisting him in sorting out the kinks of a batting method that required freedom of movement and clarity of thought to continue counterpunching the world's bowlers.
Ponting, of course, was that rare cricketer to possess a superior batting record to Clarke's own. For most of the time since Ponting retired, Clarke has relied on his own reserves of batting insight and muscle memory to keep his game in gear, though it is notable that he played at his very peak during his first two years as captain, when Ponting was still alongside him as a senior player and source of occasional advice.
Clarke's second innings at Derby was nothing special, and included a dropped catch. But he at least made a start, and by day's end his feet were certainly better positioned than they had been for most of his halting first-innings stay at Lord's. How much help Di Venuto provided only Clarke knows, but the captain would do well to listen to the advice of the batting coach over the next few days. Even if he would be well within his rights to stump up with the question that had once haunted Foster.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig