Clarke shows poise of a captain before loose stroke spoils day

The Australian angle
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The Independent Online

As far as Australians were concerned two players were under particular scrutiny at the SCG. Michael Clarke and Usman Khawaja needed to reassure locals that they were capable of carrying out the task assigned them. Only then could the clouds covering the future disperse. Both enjoyed mixed fortunes.

Clarke has to convince Australians that he is a top-class batsmen and a responsible leader. His popularity has been hurt by immature episodes off the field. Polls indicate that few locals think he is the man for the job.

Suffice to say that his leadership exceeded his batting. Determined to do things his way, and despite the lingering presence of Ponting in the rooms, he broke with recent custom by inviting past players to present the newcomers with their caps. He also juggled the batting order by promoting Brad Haddin. Moreover he dared to bat first in murky light and on a seaming pitch.

Clarke also coaxed from his players the sort of sturdy batting that eluded them in Melbourne. Certainly the top order displayed the tenacity needed to keep out England's probing pacemen.

So far so good. However, Clarke let his side down with the bat, playing exactly the sort of loose stroke eschewed by his comrades. The sight of him cutting off the front foot did little to persuade critics that he has the wherewithal to guide a young outfit.

By the look of things, though, Australia has found its next first drop. During the course of his polished innings Usman Khawaja displayed most of the qualities needed to occupy cricket's trickiest position. Only one attribute eluded him – longevity. In every other respect he served the purpose.

Throughout an emotional, exhausting day, the newcomer retained his equanimity. If elephants were stamping around in his stomach he kept it to himself. Presented with his cap by Mark Taylor he smiled and then laughed as the former captain advised him to "watch the ball and swing hard".

Naturally his folks were not quite as restrained. In that regard they were not alone. Across the country many hearts swelled with pride as he took his place in the national team. Indeed the newcomer was greeted with the sort of ovation usually reserved for champions.

Khawaja immediately seemed in his element. No sooner had he taken guard than his innings was under way. Spell-bound, many batsmen record ducks in their first Test innings. Khawaja's worries lasted a single ball. All morning he had watched the openers battling to survive as the ball moved about. Now he found his opening salvo ball arriving on his pads and politely tucked it away for two runs.

It was all matter of fact, and done with the air of a man advancing his team's cause, not his own. If anything the next delivery was even more telling. Hitherto the Australians had been showing admirable restraint. Conditions were difficult and the opener's primary task was to establish the innings.

However the newcomer was not constrained. Spotting a short delivery, he moved swiftly into position and with a roll of the wrist pulled the ball to the boundary. Clearly he was willing to play his own game. Perhaps the conversations with Ricky Ponting helped. Apparently the Tasmanian advised him to let his batting speak for itself. Many a man falters who tries to impress.

And the runs kept coming. Without particularly trying, too, he reached 15 in 8 balls. It was not going to last. Sooner or later an England side used to these conditions was bound to regain its poise.

If anything Khawaja's ability to contain himself thereafter was more telling. A galloping innings is notoriously hard to rein in. At last his defensive technique was examined. Happily it survived. Khawaja remained still at the crease, his judgement of line and length quick and precise. Nor was he bothered that the flow of runs had slowed. Throughout he displayed an ability to take the bowling, and life, as he found it.

Khawaja came within one miserable ball of keeping his wicket intact. Alas he did not make it. Cricket can be a mongrel of a game. He departed with head bowed. Still, it had been an auspicious beginning.