Clarke comes under fire amid rumours of split in Aussie camp

Australia are in turmoil. The team have forgotten how to win, the dressing room is split, the future of the captaincy is the subject of heated debate and with only 20 days until the Ashes nobody can decide who their best bowlers are.

It would almost be time to bring on the violins if only their sound were not to be drowned out by the laughter. Having had it so good for so long, having sent irresistible expeditionary forces to every part of the cricketing globe and proved more or less impregnable at home for almost 20 years, Australia are coming back to the pack at an alarming rate.

The one-day defeat to Sri Lanka on Wednesday has had a stunning effect. The match was all but won. Australia had seemingly recovered from difficulties early in their innings and made 239 for 8, their pleasure reinforced by the return to form of the veteran Mike Hussey whose place in the Test side had been under threat.

When Sri Lanka lost their eighth wicket with the total barely past 100, it was all but done. But a one-day world record ninth-wicket partnership ensued between the improbable duo of Angelo Mathews and Lasith Malinga and the tourists got home by a wicket. Australia's misery was compounded by the fact that Melbourne Cricket Ground was barely a quarter full for the match and most of the crowd, Sri Lankan expatriates, were supporting the visitors.

It was a wretched experience for a side which had bestrode the planet not long ago and yesterday it grew worse. Tales of disharmony have been seeping through gradually for days as they tend to do from the dressing rooms of losing teams – and Australia have lost six times in a row.

Although damage-limitation exercises are being conducted by the cricketing establishment, like stretched emergency services trying to deal with a raging bush fire, the disarray is obvious. Michael Clarke, who led the side on Wednesday in the absence of the appointed captain, Ricky Ponting, at his grandmother's funeral, continues to be an object of scrutiny.

As the heir apparent to Ponting, it seems that Clarke is not to the liking of the whole team. Put baldly, the younger members back him, the senior players do not. Clarke did not help himself when he barely disguised his criticism of two players for taking part with their club side in the Twenty20 Champions League last month instead of being with Australia preparing for the first Test against India in Mohali (which the home side won by a wicket).

It was to transpire later that Hussey and Doug Bollinger had been instructed by Cricket Australia, part backers of the T20 tournament, to take part. Several players were annoyed by Clarke's insinuation that the pair had put cash before country.

Ponting's position is continually debated. It is openly suggested, indeed it is common knowledge, that it will be untenable should he lose the Ashes at home, itself unthinkable for a quarter of a century. So desperate is the situation that Marcus North, a middle-order batsman who is barely sure of his place in the Test team, was being touted yesterday as a possible successor.

North, who scored two Ashes hundreds against England last summer but has passed 21 only 10 times in his 32 Test innings, was forced to deny his possible candidacy yesterday. He did so charmingly but then he had no option.

"What I've woken up and read this morning is completely unfounded," he said. "I must be playing in another cricket team if that's a fact. Yesterday the feeling in the media is who can replace North and then the next minute I'm being touted as Australian captain. In an Ashes summer you can expect a bit of hype and a few stories but I think we're scraping the barrel there a bit."

But if not Ponting and if not Clarke and if not North, then who? North was due to captain Western Australia against England today and his name was proposed in the Perth media yesterday. Doubtless on the east coast a similar (and less fanciful) case might be made for Simon Katich, Test opener and long-time captain of New South Wales. The fact that the issue is being openly discussed is merely a further sign that Australia are floundering.

This is all a long way from saying that they will meekly surrender the Ashes, starting on 25 November in Brisbane. Aussies do nothing meekly and in their dictionaries there is usually a gap between surrealism and surreptitious (neither of which they are much good at either, although Shane Warne's much missed bowling was both at times).

England's players are doing their best to ignore Australia's travails but acknowledged that they are some way from the unit that won the Ashes series 5-0 in this country four years ago. "They're a different outfit from what we came up against last time around but it would be silly to start downplaying the opposition," said Paul Collingwood, England's senior professional yesterday. "It doesn't change our belief that we had before. We have beaten Australia in this past year quite a lot of times in some very important games, so that belief has always been growing and hopefully will continue to grow in these warm-up games we have got coming." England know that they can win. All of Australia knows it, too.

20 days to the Ashes

Number of Ashes appearances made by the Australia wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist in four series between 2001 and 2007. He made 96 dismissals, averaging 2.4 per innings. It is the highest average for an Ashes wicketkeeper.