Clarke rediscovers his swagger before the cruellest of ends
The Australian angle: Realising his position, Clarke bristled with energy from the moment he took guard
Tuesday 07 December 2010
Overnight Mike Hussey and comrades held the Ashes in their hands. By now all England will know the news. If the old pro and chums saved the match then the Aussies can go to Perth with hope intact. If not they will need to take 20 wickets twice in three attempts at a cheaper rate than their opponents. It's not impossible but it's hardly likely. English wickets have been falling about once every week.
Until that last twist, the old pro and the vice captain did their utmost to keep their team in the contest. Michael Clarke's innings was important on several levels. His team needed a big innings from him and his form had been scratchy. Since moving to second wicket down, he had averaged 19 and some of his dismissals had been wanton. Australian cricket does not lightly bestow leadership. He needed to prove himself worthy of the position. After all, it might be open next month.
Of late, too, he had lost the brightness that sustained him in the early part of his career. Nor has it been replaced by the weight of mind expected from senior batsmen. Instead, he has been trapped midway between youth and age. Although lacking his power and ruthlessness at the crease, he has much in common with England's Kevin Pietersen. They have shone and suffered in similar ways. By stumps the irony could not be missed.
Clarke needed to give his career the second surge upon which so many depend. Realising the position, he bristled with energy from the moment he took guard. At first, observers feared for his survival. He seemed to be taking too many risks, driving on the rise, flicking nonchalantly, pulling off the front foot. But then dogged is not his style.
Clearly Australia had decided to maintain a normal tempo. "Slasher" McKay and "Barnacle" Bailey might have been able to block for 10 hours with 10 fieldsmen hovering around the bat but lesser mortals are better advised to adopt familiar strategies.
Convinced he is susceptible to lifters, England attacked Clarke with bumpers. Most were ill-directed and most fled down the leg-side as the batsman ducked. News travels fast and he is going to get plenty of rough treatment. These things can be turned to advantage. Short-pitched bowling wastes energy and eliminates most means of dismissal.
Contrastingly, his duel with Graeme Swann required wit. Swann is a match for any of the Pommy offies from the 1960s and 1970s. At once he is a craftsman and a competitor. Before long he found his length and was making batsmen grope.
Clarke was his equal, using his pegs to dance down the pitch, countering sharp spin with swift footwork. Previously Ian Bell had given an outstanding display of footwork against the slower bowlers thereby disproving hackneyed remarks about slow-footed Poms. The Australian was as quick but not as composed. Surrounded by catchers and determined to put the pressure back on the bowler, he drove and cut against the spin and occasionally tried to clout to leg. At times he went too far and survived more by luck than judgement.
Hereabouts Clarke's closest shave came as all England appealed for a snare at slip off a supposed inside edge. Tony Hill answered in the affirmative, Clarke asked for a referral and the third umpire cleared him on all charges. It was another instance of the excellent contribution made by the decision referral system.
Nor did the danger ever pass. Although the right hander batted perkily, using his artistic hands to put the ball away, his occupation was fraught. Repeatedly fieldsmen threw their hands in the air. Swann was irrepressible and Steven Finn produced his most awkward spell. Even Hussey, an old pro enjoying a fifth lease of life, was hanging on. A wicket never seemed far away. Australia seemed to be playing on a different pitch. It was another reverse of recent experiences.
Clarke and chum almost made it. All the hard work had been done. One miserable over remained and it was bowled by a part-timer; six wretched balls from safety. He subdued the extra bounce detected in the first offering. And then... and then... but you know what happened next.
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