Cricket World Cup 2015: Michael Clarke, Steve Smith or George Bailey? Captaincy issue offers chink in Australia's armour

Clarke has missed the last two months through injury

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Australia are beset by doubt. It may not appear that way. They are favourites for the World Cup, they have lost only one of their last 12 completed matches and they have beaten England, their opponents in the crucial opening fixture of the tournament, in 13 of the last 15 matches between the sides in this country.

Several of Australia’s batsmen are the most formidable, fearless operators in world cricket while their fast bowling is genuinely that – quick and of both left- and right-arm variety. If they do not have all the spin bowling bases covered, then nor does anyone else. They have taken the art of fielding to new levels.

In short, Australia are swaggering. So focused are the squad that they are treating this week’s warm-up matches as part of the competition proper, so unified that players have rejected the offer of a couple of days at home between some games during the tournament.

But Australia are vulnerable in an area which it may yet be possible for England to exploit on Saturday in Melbourne. And if not England, then others down the line in the next month or so. Australia do not know who they want to be captain of their side. Or rather they probably do but are in denial about it.

The niggling uncertainty, embraces three players. Michael Clarke is the official captain of Australia and thus was named as the World Cup captain when the squad was announced.

However, Clarke has not played any international cricket since the first Test against India in Adelaide last December, when he made an emotional hundred a few days after the funeral of his friend and team-mate, Phillip Hughes. Since then there have been daily, sometimes hourly bulletins on the progress of his deep-seated hamstring injury.

During this period, the one-day team has been led with extreme effectiveness by George Bailey, the official one-day vice-captain. Bailey has actually been the side’s captain in 22 of the most recent 30 one-day internationals, going back to autumn 2013, when Clarke has been either injured or rested. That means he has been in charge as Australia have become blissfully irrepressible.

Steve Smith is in the running

But as Australia have gained form, Bailey has lost it. He has made only one score above 50 in his last 14 innings. That sequence has been tolerated partly because of his position, partly because the most recent of his half-centuries was the end of a run in which he scored 12 of them in 22 innings.

Then there is Steve Smith. That Smith will be the next official captain of Australia is in no doubt. He took over from Clarke in the last three Tests against India last month. Although Australia won only one of them, drawing the others, he scored centuries in all of them.

Smith is in magnificent form and there have been enough leaks, sanctioned or not, to suggest that the dressing room now favours him as captain.

He has been in charge for only a single ODI, when Bailey was suspended during the recent triangular series, and responded with a scintillating, match-winning hundred against England. He has brought a refreshing, less earnest style to the side.

Clarke, it is suggested, may now make his return against England this Saturday if he manages to play in the warm-up game against United Arab Emirates today. The player to make way will probably be Bailey, who therefore, it is being said, may already have played his last game for Australia.

George Bailey will claim the captaincy if Clarke is not fit

But if Clarke is not fit, Bailey will retain the captaincy. It will be difficult for Clarke to come back, whenever that is. If that seems mildly unfair, it is the nature of professional sport that it moves on more quickly than governments.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the Hughes tragedy, Clarke assumed command of events. He spoke often and movingly, he led as only leaders of conviction can.

But Clarke is 33 and Smith is 25. Clarke, still ludicrously “Pup”, has the experience, but Smith has the invigoration of youth. Australia will stick with Clarke. They have to. But he is also a batsman from another one-day age, with a strike rate of 78 when all the other batsmen are above 85, a throwback. Australia may be weaker with him than without him and other teams will sense that.