Clarke takes up reins from injured Ponting despite dreadful form

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The Independent Online

Australia yesterday appointed as captain a man who is known as Pup and has made 148 runs in the entire Ashes series so far. With the Ashes already lost, Michael Clarke will replace the injured Ricky Ponting for the fifth Test which begins in Sydney next Monday.

Although Australia have already lost the Ashes after their stunning defeat in Melbourne, which put England 2-1 ahead, they can still draw the series by winning the final match. The decision to elevate Clarke from the vice-captaincy despite his woeful form indicates that the selectors are not bent on regime change despite the overwhelming feeling of the public. The only hint of long-term revision of opinion is that wicketkeeper Brad Haddin will be Clarke's deputy in the Test match.

Clarke, who got his nickname when he first came into the side at the age of 23 when it was full of legends, will also be captain in the one-day series following the Ashes. But the selectors made it clear Ponting will return for the World Cup in February by which time his fractured left little finger will have healed.

Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of Australia's selectors, said: "With Ricky being unavailable for this match we are sure that both Michael and Brad will lead this Australian side with great professionalism and the full support of the team as we strive for a victory in Sydney. We look forward to Ricky completing his recovery and leading this team to a fourth successive ICC Cricket World Cup on the sub-continent at the completion of the Australian summer."

Clarke has had a series every bit as poor as Ponting who made only 113 runs in his eight innings at an average of 16.14. He broke his finger in the third Test at Perth when attempting to hold a catch at second slip and may have aggravated it by playing in the fourth at Melbourne. X-rays yesterday showed the damage had worsened.

His absence means that the Pakistan- born Sydneysider, Usman Khawaja, will make his debut, probably in Ponting's number three spot. If he succeeds there can be no doubt that even if Ponting returns to lead the Test side again he will drop down the order.

The selectors have resisted wholesale changes despite their obvious predicament or, indeed, virtually any change at all. Khawaja aside, the only other amendment is the inclusion in their 12-man squad of Doug Bollinger, who was patently short of fitness in the second Test, for the injured Ryan Harris. It may all be misplaced faith.

While most of the country appears to think Ponting should step down, there is no obvious successor and the idea of handing the permanent job to Clarke in his present form is unthinkable even to this bunch of selectors, who appear at times to have lost the plot. Should Clarke, who averages 21 in the series, get runs in Sydney that might complicate the issue. But there is the concern that Clarke may not have the backing of the dressing room.

Khawaja, 24, was born in Islamabad, and has had two accomplished seasons in the Sheffied Shield. He scored 698 runs at 63.45 last year and although he has not reached three figures this season since a highly lauded 214 for New South Wales on the opening day, he is still averaging above 50.

But for Australia to square the series Pup must become a mongrel.