Australian angle: Clarke comes of age in a fading side

Peter Roebuck of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age writes from Lord's

Michael Clarke did his utmost to hold the line but Andrew Flintoff and chums could not be stopped. Anything seemed possible as Brad Haddin and the Australian vice-captain laid about them on the fourth evening. A 59-year-old can finish equal top in the Open. A student can be found alive after spending 12 nights sleeping rough in the Blue Mountains. Could Australia chase 500? At first the pair seemed merely to be throwing pies at an advancing tank, making a last defiant gesture before bowing to the inevitable. As the afternoon wore on, though, they began to bat with increasing confidence until audacity itself could be detected in their mien.

It was not to be. Awakening England did not take long to crush Australia's ambitions. Within 10 minutes hopes of securing a famous victory had been dashed as Andrew Strauss's bowlers pitched the ball up. Inevitably Freddie Flintoff led the charge.

All the more reason to praise Clarke's adroit hand. Without him Australia might have suffered not a mere defeat but a devastating blow. At first sight Clarke seems a batsman of sunshine and mood, not one to grit his teeth. Here he confirmed that he has the stomach for the fight and the skill to deal with demanding bowling and intense pressure.

Not that he lacked style. His footwork is exceptionally quick and, alone among these Australians, he regularly steps down the pitch to attack spinners. If anything his use of his hands was even more charming as he used his wrists to glide the ball through the covers or tucked it off his pads. His lack of rigidity reminds us that, along with Phillip Hughes, he is coached by Neil D'Costa, an Indian who settled in Sydney.

Clarke's hundred at Lord's indicated that, after customary twists and turns, his career is on track. His debut hundred in Bangalore in October 2004 hinted at exceptional ability and emotional attachment. He batted with a spring in his step and a song in his heart. Hearing he was playing, his family flew across the oceans and tears were shed as he tapped Anil Kumble into a gap to collect his 100th run. A few minutes earlier Clarke had swapped his helmet for a green cap so that he could kiss its emblem when he reached three figures. Even then he did not lack confidence. Another hundred followed in his first home Test and for a time the artist resembled a machine.

It did not last. Clarke became distracted by the trumpets and trinkets that accompany talent on its journey. Before long his concentration was wavering and a careless cut in Hobart cost him his place. Although his head was hot, his technique was the main problem. His bat was crooked in defence and his shot selection awry. Here was another young man forced to confront his shadow.

Clarke went into the nets and corrected his mistakes. He did not want to stifle his batting or character, just score more runs. So he charted a path forwards as an independent young man, superb batsman and future captain. Attracted by the high life, he realised it was a question of striking a balance between instinct and duty. Clarke came to understand that batting was his calling, cricket his life, and that there was a time and place for the rest. Since his return to the team, Clarke, 28, has become a top-class batsmen. Whereas in 2005 England could tease him till be undid himself, now he is humble and alert.

Australia were not going to go down with a whimper on his watch. Always he has fought in his country's corner, rejecting Indian Premier League contracts to conserve energy, nursing a bad back. He has even captained the Twenty20 team, and with the vitality detected in his batting. He has always been frustrated by Ricky Ponting's intransigent leadership.

Despite his hundred, though, Australia did lose at Lord's. Suddenly the bowling looks thin and the future, his future, seems bleak. A captain without bowlers walks naked onto the field. Here is a cricketer at the height of his powers, who has just played the innings of his life, wondering whether the best is already behind him.