Clarke delivers Ashes warning to England fans

By the time it is all done, the Australians will be as familiar as a pair of old slippers. It will be as though they have always been there in the corner of our lives. Whether they will be quite as cosy will depend entirely on results in the next 17 weeks.

When their tour is over on 20 September they will have played, if they have their way, two warm-up matches for the World Twenty20, seven in the competition proper, five Test matches and seven one-day internationals.

They are feeling pretty chipper about life. Ricky Ponting, their inestimably tough captain, was in wonderful form when he proffered his initial thoughts on the side's tour of England, his fourth, on Friday. Ponting was polite, charming and gracious but he never missed a chance to gently undermine England's chances.

The big prize, the biggest prize, as ever, is the Ashes. All roads lead there and despite the presence for the next three weeks of the World Twenty20, the Ashes will remain omnipresent.

Ponting's vice-captain and probable successor (though he may he have to wait some time for the abdication), Michael Clarke, gave his views on matters yesterday. Micky is not yet Ricky but he has become an international cricketer of high repute, and like his captain he has a good line in fighting talk. Yesterday he sent out a warning to English supporters, pointing out that Australia, who have lost Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath among others since they were last in England, were no longer a team in transition.

"It's been a long time now to be honest, the likes of Warne and McGrath haven't been playing for nearly two years now," he said. "I think we as a team are well and truly beyond that, those guys will always be remembered as greats of the game and we'll never be able to replace those guys.

"But it gives new guys an opportunity to come in and play the way they play. The guys that had their opportunity in South Africa made the most of it."

Like Phillip Hughes, one of those who thrived in South Africa, Clarke had a spectacular beginning in international cricket, not only scoring a hundred in his first match, but also a couple of months later in his First Test in Australia. The stuff of dreams. When he initially broke into Australia's side he was young, especially when set alongside the vaunted legends who composed, almost entirely, the rest of the team. The nickname he was given then, of Pup, does not sit so easily now.

The image which England cricket followers like to retain in their minds is of Clarke being bowled on the Saturday evening of the 2005 Edgbaston Test by a smart slower ball from Stephen Harmison. It turned the match and the series, despite the subsequent drama of the next morning.

But there is also the image of Clarke in the whitewash of 2006-07, cultured, brisk, a man in charge of his game. His centuries at Adelaide and Perth in successive matches helped to ensure the Ashes were swiftly regained and that the opposition were humiliated.

He believes the Australians can approach those heights again this summer, despite an apparently weaker squad. "The English public will make their own decision [about the strength of the Australia squad]," he said. "For us, if we play the type of cricket we know we can, I think we might surprise a few English fans."

Clarke is extremely consistent. There were winter centuries for him in the high-scoring draw in Delhi, against New Zealand and against South Africa after the home series had been lost. He had a quiet time of it in South Africa but he led from the front when Ponting decided to have a rest in the one-day series against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Australia won 3-2 and Clarke was always in the thick of it. That much can be assured in the next 17 weeks as well. He was 28 last month and he is a batsman and (as England may find if they prepare pitches to encourage spin during the Ashes series) an artful part-time left-arm spinner. This is his second England tour and his influence on it could be profound.

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