Ashes 2015: Australia's captain Michael Clarke is already wearing look of a haunted man

He wears a pain behind his eyes even before this Ashes road starts rolling out before him

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The Independent Online

For Michael Clarke, shadows seem to lurk behind every corner, every lamppost, every bedpost. “There are people everywhere. There are people at breakfast, the corner of your bedroom; someone everywhere these days,” he ruminated, reflecting that the whole world seemed to know that Shane Watson had been dropped for the second Ashes Test when he, the captain, had no idea what the selectors had in mind. “That’s how it works, certainly with social media and the amount of journalists you see in the room,” Clarke lamented.

The man seems worn down, speaking on continuous loop, wearing a pain behind his eyes barely before this Ashes road starts rolling out before him. He has made everything in his cricket life subsidiary to this summer’s journey – depositing one-day and T20 international cricket firmly in his past to make some space for his Ashes swansong. And yet the spark seemed as faint off the field as it had been on it, in the depths of defeat in Cardiff.

Appearances and first Ashes Tests can be deceptive, of course. Let no one forget that Australia took first honours by 239 runs at Lord’s  10 years ago. Clarke, however, had still not had communication from coach Darren Lehmann about Watson when he sat down to talk, by which time a picture had already emerged of Tuesday’s hushed conversations, preceding the announcement of Brad Haddin’s withdrawal from the second Investec Test. First, Haddin and Lehmann in the Lord’s pavilion; then Clarke, head bowed, as the coach related the news that a pillar of the captain’s side would be missing.

 

That Clarke’s defence of Watson’s game should have commanded so much of the pre-match conversation at Lord’s was ironic, considering the big, lurid revelation on the eve of the 2013 Ashes Test here was that Clarke had once called Watson a “cancer”. That story was symptomatic of how strained Clarke’s relationships with some of his players have been over the years. But when you actually consider the headlines and the controversies that had weighed on him when the last tour of these shores got under way, you wonder why there isn’t a spring in his step now. Another prelude to the 2013 series was the sacking of coach Mickey Arthur, Clarke’s friend, ally and confidant. It left Clarke drifting up to his room at the Royal Garden hotel in London’s Kensington, consumed with the guilt and the shock, having been told the news before Arthur. He was unable to take Arthur’s call when it came. “I didn’t want to lie to him,” he reflected in his published diaries of that tour.

But the dynamic was different to this. The turmoil back then – part of a decline which had seen Australia punished heavily in the preceding series on the subcontinent – seemed to be a place from which the only way was up. The first Test brought defeat, though the 14-run deficit at Trent Bridge carried nothing like the enormity of Cardiff. And though the conversation about Mitchell Starc’s spasmodic efforts by the Trent (2 for 80 off 15 overs in the first innings) resonated just as strongly then as now, there was an old warhorse waiting in the background.

Ryan Harris had been nursed through to contention for Lord’s, with the retinue of medics needed to keep him fit resembling a Tour de France support crew, as Gideon Haigh puts it in his memorable narrative of the 2013-14 back-to-back series. Clarke nursed him sparingly through the Test match, too. His short first-innings spells of 5-2-9-2, 4-1-12-0, 4-1-7-1 and 4-0-13-0, all from the Pavilion End, typified the vital Harris dependability. His forced retirement, on the eve of this series, is a source of more bitter regret to Clarke with every passing week.

The middle-order struggles are another echo of 2013, when that team of Clarke’s were only beginning to discover the enormity of the space Mike Hussey had left behind with his sudden retirement. It left the side labouring under a series of middle-order collapses.

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The new Australia wicketkeeper Peter Nevill takes a beauty in practice (AP)

By the time the Ashes started, the only one of the seven players entrusted with the No 6 slot across the course of eight Tests had been Phillip Hughes, with his 81 not out in the first Test at Trent Bridge, which was such a magnificent foil for Ashton Agar’s golden debut. Australia mourns Hughes in so very many ways.

The search for the glue that “Mr Cricket” Hussey provided at the heart of the batting engine has now reached Mitch Marsh, though it will be a gamble once again – and a choice which runs against the selectors’ better judgement. It was clear from Clarke’s discussion of Marsh that the hope had been to persist with Watson for the foreseeable future beyond Cardiff.

At least Marsh brings youth, which is as invaluable to the tourists as the Western Australian’s two hundreds in the two tour games. If evidence were needed of how lacking in that elixir Australia is, then it is present in the prospect of a 29-year-old – Peter Nevill – taking Haddin’s gloves. The conservatism of Sheffield Shield sides, packed out with older players, leaves Clarke bereft of the young, fearless hearts and minds flourishing for Alastair Cook and his brave new England.

Clarke does not want to go down in cricketing history as the first Australian since the 19th century to have lost four Ashes series. His reasons to believe Lord’s will be different include a less moribund pitch, that raw and innate Australian desire to avenge any humiliation and greater luck. And can he actually summon the energy to be the engine for this?

It is possible, though there seemed to be an omen in him reaching for the example of an individual struggling to attain old heights as he sought to articulate the way fortunes in sport can turn. “I watched Roger Federer play Novak Djokovic the other day,” Clarke said. “And in the first set I was certain Roger was going to win. And in the second set I wasn’t so certain. That’s sport right there: the highs and lows...”

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