Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

The Calvin Report: A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile campaign

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The Independent Online

Michael Clarke’s team trudged towards Edgbaston’s pavilion in single file, as forlorn as a column of prisoners of war coming to terms with the indignity of captivity. There was something distinctly UnAustralian in the image of unconditional surrender.

This Ashes series has been so unpredictable we cannot entirely rule out another lurch in fortune in this week’s Fourth Test at Trent Bridge, but cricketers who once represented nationhood and the mythological merits of mateship look lost and leaderless.

At a time when Australian sport, and society at large, is convulsed by the racist overtones of the persistent abuse of Adam Goodes, an Aussie Rules legend hounded to the verge of retirement, the sense of dislocation and distraction is overwhelming.

Test cricketers were once the epitome of Australian manhood, larrikins whose legends were lubricated with beer and adorned by beach bunnies. Their machismo was emphasised by impossibly tight budgie smugglers and instinctive bravado.

Ian Wooldridge, the greatest sportswriter of my lifetime, invented an anarchic, comedic character named Terror Tomkins. Loosely based on Jeff Thomson, who pulverised England batsmen in partnership with Dennis Lillee in the seventies and early eighties, Tomkins pondered the meaning of life while squiring a succession of nymphomaniac English heiresses.  

The modern equivalent, his metrosexual descendant in a politically correct world, would probably be based on Clarke, and answer to the name Meek Michael. Australia’s current captain embodies the change in collective character borne out by a schizophrenic series.

 

Clarke’s response to the death of Phil Hughes last December was searing. He articulated a nation’s grief, and led the mourning with heartfelt emotional intelligence. Yet, as the grief of a southern hemisphere summer recedes, and is replaced by the fragility of an Ashes campaign in the northern hemisphere, he is unrecognisable.

He embodies his team’s intermittent intensity and strange sensitivity to external influences. He is out of form, out of his comfort zone, and, at  the age of 34, running out of time. He is hampered by a porcelain back and a muddled mind. His highest score in his last 10 Ashes innings in England is 38. He is currently averaging a paltry 18.80.

Cricket is a game of binary certainties, but the scorebook, which justifies Clarke’s slide to 22nd in the newly-published list of the world’s best batsmen, tells only half the story. Any international captain who admits his team is effectively playing with 10 men because of his struggle for form comes close to dereliction of duty.

Darren Lehmann, Australia’s similarly embattled coach, stressed yesterday that Clarke has “as long as he needs” to rehabilitate himself. He suggested “we’re not going to panic” and, in confirming Clarke will lead the side in Nottingham, hailed the example he sets off the pitch.

“I can’t complain about the work ethic of any of the players, Michael especially as captain,” he said. “He sets the tone and raises the bar of what you need to do to play well at this level. He needs to bat. He likes that.”

Lehmann hinted at being open to his captain dropping down the order to No 5. This immediately placed him at odds with Ricky Ponting, who suggested it would send out a self-defeatist signal. Clarke was supposed to protect a callow middle order, which is likely to be augmented by Shaun Marsh at the expense of Adam Voges.

Suspicion that this is a team divided against itself grows. The dropping of Brad Haddin, to facilitate the promotion of Peter Nevill, created internal and external friction, since, like his former skipper Ponting, Haddin is revered in influential quarters as a product of a more confrontational culture. 

Defeat in three days has led to concern that the current group lacks “ticker”, that Australian soubriquet for heart, fight and resistance. The broader worry concerns the potential impact of an impassioned Trent Bridge crowd, taking an intimidatory lead from England supporters at Edgbaston.

They created an atmosphere closer in spirit to a football match than more reserved audiences found at Lord’s or even The Oval, setting for a potentially decisive Fifth Test from 20 August. Significantly, their raucous support registered most powerfully with Australia’s two most overtly aggressive players, David Warner and Mitchell Johnson.

Warner, the Walkabout warrior, at least retained a sense of defiance. Mitchell, the tattooed tomcat, was so distracted by the theatrical disdain generated by his status as a pantomime villain he bowled one barely legal delivery in blind panic. 

Once attack dogs lose their teeth, they lose their relevance. Clarke’s docility, after 112 Tests have taken their toll on his confidence, is even more ominous. Even if he sees out this series, he is uniquely vulnerable.  Steve Smith’s chances of taking over his job for the subsequent tour of Bangladesh are advancing even faster than Shane Warne’s wondrous hairline.

Saggy green: What they say

‘I think it’s always going to be hard to beat any opposition when they’ve got 11 and we’ve got only 10. At the moment that’s how it feels. With my performances so far I certainly haven’t led from the front as I’d like to do as captain. I’ve always made that very clear. That’s a big part of my role as leader, that I’m scoring plenty of runs and leading by example’

Michael Clarke

‘He will get as long as he needs, he’s captain. He’s got to play well. He’s a guy that is like all the other batters. It’s not just Michael – it’s our top six. Apart from Chris Rogers in the first innings and David Warner in the second, they all struggled ’

Team coach Darren Lehmann

‘Ashes slipping away as Aussies hammered... It can’t get worse than this’

Courier Mail, Brisbane

‘This XI was given the job of winning the Ashes. Now do it, or if you don’t you might never be seen again’

Former wicketkeeper Ian Healy

‘Heads will roll if Australia can’t turn this debacle around... The catastrophe facing Australia’s “Dad’s Army” roster has cast a dark cloud not just over this Ashes campaign — but over the immediate future of the Test team’

Fox Sports Australia

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