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Captain Clarke under huge pressure

Ailing Australia need Sri Lankan tour tonic

Ian McCullough @IanMac08

Having dominated the international game for more than a decade, Australia’s Test cricketers are in Sri Lanka for the next six weeks on a mission to win back the affections of a nation.

Since the retirements between 2007 and 2009 of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, the Aussies have slumped to fifth in the ICC Test rankings and are looking to avoid a third successive series defeat following losses to India and England.

Led by new skipper Michael Clarke, a squad sprinkled with veterans such as Ricky Pointing, Brad Haddin and Michael Hussey still contains proven performers, but it is the abilities of the new generation of players that have many questioning whether Australia can ever return to No.1.

The 3-1 Ashes humiliation, their first series defeat by England Down Under since 1986-87, cut a proud sporting nation deep. A media, that had for so long revelled in championing their heroes and once even suggested that, such was England’s ineptitude, they may not deserve a five-Test series, opened fire on the team and the board of selectors led by former Test opener Andrew Hilditch.

An independent review into the future of the game is likely to take place later this year, with a panel/board believed to contain former Test captains Steve Waugh, Mark Taylor and Allan Border.

When that takes place, it is widely predicted Hilditch will be shown the door, with coach Tim Nielsen’s position also under threat.

Hilditch has been widely castigated by several former players, with Michael Slater one of his most vocal critics.

“I’ve reached the point where I’ve lost faith in the decision-makers and there needs to be a big shake-up,” Slater said. “Australia’s participation in the Ashes was messed up from the very beginning.

“They decided to name the Ashes squad 10 days out from the first Test, with several players desperately needing to prove they were worthy of selection and with a whole round of Sheffield Shield games remaining in which to do so.

“The one man who definitely has to go is Andrew Hilditch. Greg Chappell, as the full-time selector, has to be appointed chairman and he should appoint a new panel.”

Simon Katich, who was surprisingly overlooked for a new central contract in June because of his age, despite being the second-highest Test run-scorer in the world over the previous three years, launched a stunning broadside against selectors.

At an extraordinary press conference, the 35-year-old lambasted the decision, labelling it “ridiculous”.

“If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys,” Katich said of the predominantly part-time panel. “The fact we had 10 or 11 spinners in the last two or three years is another indicator of the inconsistency in selections. There’s been rules for some and rules for others.”

Defeat in the three-Test series to Sri Lanka ahead of a tough tour of South Africa in October and the visit of India over Christmas, could have a critical effect on the side, with genuine concern about the lack of ready-made international players coming through a once productive domestic system.

Many youngsters who have been earmarked as fast-bowling prospects have been snapped up by cash-rich Australian Rules Football teams and the once never-ending conveyor belt of brilliant young batsmen coming through Sheffield Shield competition has slowed considerably.

“It is a problem with young quicks being snapped up by footie teams,” said former Test seamer and national bowling coach Damien Fleming.

“I had two or three really good young kids who were lost to cricket, but thankfully in NSW where AFL isn’t king, like it is in Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, there are two or three very good bowlers coming through.

“As for batsman, I think the arrival of Twenty20 cricket has seen less players head over to play county cricket in England, which is a great place to learn about playing in different conditions and broaden their experience.

“Hopefully Phil Hughes can rediscover the form that saw him score two centuries in his first two Tests and I have great confidence in young Usman Khawaja who is real talent.”

“The talent is there, there is no chance of a West Indies situation happening in Australia because the infrastructure is too strong. But we are struggling a bit at the moment.”

Clarke was promoted to skipper following Ponting’s resignation in the wake of the defeat by India in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, and handed the onerous task of working out how an inexperienced attack can take 20 wickets against one of the world’s strongest batting line-ups on home soil.

Although he was Ponting’s deputy for over two years, Clarke’s appointment polarised opinion around the country to an unprecedented level.

The 30-year-old’s penchant for tattoos, celebrity girlfriends, referring to himself in the third person and modelling underwear were not associated with a role once occupied by the hard-nosed Border, Waugh and Ponting.

Such was Clarke’s unpopularity that, in 2009, the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s acerbic columnist Paul Kent thundered: “Michael Clarke is a tosser. Or to give him a get-out clause, he appears to be a tosser.”

Being hammered by the media was one thing, but walking out to bat to a cacophony of boos from his own fans at the Gabba last January was extraordinary in a nation that generally loves to get behind its sporting heroes.

Since taking over as skipper in March, Clarke has make big strides to improve his public image. The decision to ditch the modelling and revealing he would have no problem in seeking advice from Ponting, now in the team as just a batsman, were greeted positively.

Early in his career rumours persisted that Clarke was more concerned with himself than the team – a Gen-Y pin-up boy more comfortable at fashion parades than bonding with team-mates.

Matters came to a head in 2008 in a dressing-room spat with Katich following a win over South Africa in Sydney.

It ended with the future captain being pinned against the wall by Katich, who took exception to Clarke badgering Michael Hussey to sing the team’s victory song early so he could leave to meet his then girlfriend, model Lara Bingle.

Despite the criticism of Clarke, Warne has thrown his support behind the new skipper and believes his close friend has the potential to be as good as Taylor.

“Michael as a tactician is very good. His communication skills remind me of a young Mark Taylor, who was the best captain I played under,” Warne wrote in a newspaper column.

“He works well with the bowlers and we don’t see him running up to them after every ball or looking like a cop directing traffic.

“Some captains like that because it’s a power trip. ‘Look at me, I’m in charge.’

“His tactics are spot-on and his style of play is aggressive. With a team in transition, it’s important to put players under pressure; that is, you have to risk losing to win, not be happy to not lose and draw. That way the players learn how to win and learn by their mistakes.”

Despite Warne’s ringing endorsement, unlike his predecessors, Clarke hasn’t inherited a Test attack that contains the man who took 708 Test wickets and McGrath.

Since Warne’s retirement in 2007, selectors have desperately tried to find someone who can fill the void.

No fewer than 10 spinners have been used and discarded in that time. Little-known rookie spinner Nathan Lyon is the latest tweaker to be selected, despite having played just four first-class matches and possessing an unremarkable record of 12 wickets at an average of 43.

Two years ago, Lyon took up the groundsman’s position at the Adelaide Oval, turning his arm occasionally in the nets to the South Australia state players.

However, his ability to make the ball loop and dip impressed South Australia coach Darren Berry, who decided to give Lyon a chance.

To highlight further the parlous state of Australia’s spinning options, Lyon will be partnered in Sri Lanka by another Test greenhorn, Michael Beer.

Beer’s solitary Test appearance in the fifth Ashes Test, saw him finish with unflattering figures of 1-112 in his one innings bowled in at the SCG.

Australia’s Twenty20 skipper Cameron White, one of the spinners used and discarded, despite his abilities as an all-rounder, admitted he was bemused by Lyon’s selection.

“It seems as though the door is open for everyone in first-class cricket, one-day cricket, and Twenty20 cricket to play Test cricket, if that makes any sense,” White said. “I guess if you are in the right place at the right time you can be picked.”

While spin stocks may be low, there is plenty of optimism about the nation’s pace prospects, with 18-year-old Patrick Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, 20, both tipped to be Ashes starters in 2013.

Doug Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus were both overlooked for Sri Lanka with 25-year-old Trent Copeland, who averages an impressive 21.68 with the ball and has been likened to a young McGrath, handed a maiden Test call-up.

James Pattinson, brother of England one-cap wonder Darren Pattinson, is also included for the first time with the mercurial Mitchell Johnson, experienced Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle making up the attack.

“Trent Copeland has had an unbelievable start to his first-class career,” said Fleming, who played 20 Tests between 1994 and 2001 and is one of only the three men to take a hat-trick on his debut.

“He bowls stump to stump which is what you need to do in Sri Lanka when there is a lot of moisture in the early session and always humid.

“He is a very fit man and bowls and bowls all day, which is what you need out there when the pitches flatten out.”

Fleming admits a big defeat in Sri Lanka would be a huge blow ahead the South Africa series but believes Clarke’s side can spring a surprise.

“It could be very damaging if we lose heavily,” Fleming said. “South Africa who will be all over us out there, and then India come over here and they are always tough battles when they visit Australia.

“But I’m quietly confident we can win out there. There are question marks over their bowling attack, there’s no Murali and no [Lasith] Malinga.

“But that said, their batting line-up of [Kumar] Sangakkara, [Mahela] Jayawardene, [Tillakaratne] Dilshan is world class. Taking 20 wickets out there against those guys is as hard as anywhere in world cricket.”

Australia and Sri Lanka will play two Twenty20 internationals and five one-dayers, before the three-Test series gets under way in earnest on August 31 in Galle with the remaining Tests in Pallekele and Colombo

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3 Responses to “Clarke’s Conundrum”

  1. Charles Perrin August 5, 2011

    It looks set to be an exciting series and Australia will be looking to play with their ruthless edge of yesteryear to help give them some momentum.

    There are some question marks over the selection and since the ‘golden generation’ retired between 2007 and 2009, the Aussies haven’t threatened to reclaim their glory years.

    I was impressed with Khawaja who looked useful as a top-order batsman and hit 37 against England at the SCG in the Ashes last winter.

    Clarke I’m sure will have the backing of the team and with experienced campaigners like Mitchell Johnson, Brad Haddin and Brett Lee touring too, captaining the team and scoring runs will seem a little less daunting.

  2. I am hoping that Sri Lanka creates some interesting pitches and not simply ones that turn from Day One or a flat-track mess that the SSC often is. Watching two teams pile up 600+ apiece when tests elsewhere in the world are riveting does nothing to boost the game in Sri Lanka.
    I am keen to see how the new Aussie pacemen and this chap, Nathan Lyon, do. SL’s issue is that sans Malinga and Murali, their bowling attack seems mediocre at best. Ajantha Mendis has been found out. Truth be told, I am hoping for a 1-1 going into the Third Test.

  3. Stumbling Matilda August 8, 2011

    The talent pool isn’t there. Stuart Law and Lehman didn’t even get a game 7 or 8 years ago the team was so good. They have no batsman coming through have as goos as those two. The Aussies won’t challenge for at least 5 years and Clarke is a dreadful choice as skipper, too hated in the dressing room.


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