Michael Clarke: 'We're at our best when the chips are down'

Australia's captain in waiting and their best player at Lord's has come back from dips in form – and is convinced Mitchell Johnson will do the same
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The Independent Online

Call it the Australian way. Michael Clarke did. Here are his side, 1-0 down in the Ashes, with a star opening batsman who cannot score runs and a star fast bowler who can barely hit the cut strip and they are still the cocks of the walk.

As he mused yesterday on the state of the series as it pertains to the state of the knee belonging to the English champion, Andrew Flintoff, Clarke said: "I hope Andrew is fit and ready to go and can finish the series, he certainly deserves that. Unfortunately, I think he's going to be finishing as a loser when we win the series."

There appears to be no room for doubt in the Australian collective mind that they will do anything other than come back. It is breathtaking less in its arrogance than its simplicity, an article of faith allowing no room for scepticism.

"It's the Australian way, I guess," said Clarke. "We play this game for one reason: to win. We love the game we play, we'll be out there on Thursday backing ourselves 100 per cent to win this game. We play our best cricket when the chips are down, we are 1-0 down and we'll take the positives out of that. We know where we let ourselves down over the past two Tests and we know the areas we want to improve. I'm certain if we play our best cricket we will win this Test."

Clarke will play in the third npower Test at Edgbaston tomorrow as Australia's form batsman. An innings of 83 at Cardiff, the only defect of which was that it did not become a century, was followed by a pristine 136 at Lord's. There were times on the fourth evening when it seriously looked as if Clarke meant Australia to chase the enormous target of 522 that they had been set.

All of England knew that the tourists had to lose an early wicket on the final morning if the impossible was not to become reality. But it was not Clarke who budged first. He was still for going nowhere and finally perished when he misjudged the flight of a dipping off-spinner from Graeme Swann. It was probably Clarke's best Test innings but he made it clear immediately afterwards that this could never be so in his own estimation because it came in a losing cause. Therefore it hardly counted at all.

Clarke bats and speaks these days not only as a man sure of his place in the side but as the captain in waiting. The official vice-captain to Ricky Ponting, it is fully expected that he will eventually assume the mantle. Were Australia to lose the series, that would surely be as soon as this October, because it is hard to think that handing over the Ashes twice would be swiftly forgiven.

The heir apparent shows no sign of wanting the office and if his support of the captain is carefully constructed it also seems genuine. Ponting needs only 25 runs to become Australia's heaviest runs scorer in Test matches. His understudy said: "He's not only an amazing player but an amazing leader, somebody we all look up to.

"If anyone deserves to overtake Allan Border it's Ricky Ponting, he's been an amazing player for such a long time in all forms of the game, in all conditions around the world, to me that's a sign of great players. I see Ricky as one of the greatest players I've played with, and one of the greatest players to play the game."

If Australia recover and retain the Ashes, then there will presumably be no change of captain and no call for it. Clarke would prefer to win the series and possibly never have the top job than lose it and have it almost immediately.

The manner of his batting has so far this summer been studious and measured, though his swift footwork and cover driving remain instinctive. He was a born buccaneer when he first entered the Test arena with hundreds both in his maiden Tests away and at home but has since re-tailored his game.

Clarke leaves more than he once did, a feature of all the Australian batsmen's play in Cardiff, and seems generally tighter in method. He found it tough on his first tour of England in 2005 and a top score of 91 (at Lord's) reflected a player undone by England's reverse swing.

Dropped not long afterwards when his modest run continued, he altered his style and then found redemption almost in full against England in the return series.

There were hundreds at Adelaide and Perth as Australia regained the Ashes and he has barely been out of form since. He carries himself these days like a mature batsman, as if he is willing the sternness of his close-cropped hair to influence his batsmanship.

He knows what it is like to lose form, to incur selectorial disfavour and he was thinking specifically of Mitchell Johnson, his struggling fast bowling colleague who is currently beset by demons.

"It's very hard to be dropped from the team you want to play for," said Clarke. "To get dropped is very hard to deal with, there's a lot of players around the world who have been dropped and got back.

"When I got dropped I had to understand that I needed to work harder, on weaknesses and strengths, and how to get back in the team. Fortunately, it's a little bit about right time, right place. I think Mitch is in a completely different place to where I was. I had 12 months where I couldn't make a run, so there was every reason for me to be dropped."

Clarke was magisterial at Lord's. Having fallen into an England trap in the first innings – when he clipped to short mid-wicket – he was exemplary in the second. Curtailed neither by the target nor the parlousness of Australia's position, it was in its way an exhibition every bit as thrilling as the fast bowling by Flintoff that won England the match.

He was not one of Flintoff's victims and in 12 Ashes Test never has been. Both men are in resplendent form: it should be quite a sight.