Peter Roebuck: In tale of three captains Strauss looks a natural for leading role

The Australian angle
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The Independent Online

Three captains endured equally exhausting but radically different fortunes as the fifth Test unfolded at the SCG. One man stood at slip, walked out to bat, carted the ball around and then sat in the rooms as his colleagues piled on the runs. His opponent manoeuvred his men on the field and suffered as ill winds buffeted his team. Meanwhile, a third lay under the surgeon's knife and in his conscious moments surely contemplated the ups and downs of a tormenting campaign.

Already Andrew Strauss has achieved his primary aim of retaining the Ashes, joining a select group of Pommy captains. Although he does not give much away, he is entitled to feel a deep sense of satisfaction. The series is not quite over and has not even been won, but it has been a job well done. His hardest task has been to keep his players at the same level of intensity and he has mostly succeeded. England have played well in days, not hours, and in that regard have surpassed spluttering opponents.

Only in Perth, from the second day onwards, and for an hour yesterday did the visitors lose their game. On both occasions they bounced back strongly. Both times the captain led the fightback. After the defeat at the Waca, Strauss praised the pitch, congratulated his opponents, said England remained the better side and added that he could not see any reason to change anything. He recognised that the problem was one of performance, not personnel. In the critical hour he kept his head.

Strauss himself was to blame for his team's second and shorter bad patch at the SCG. Eventually captains will stop spreading the field for presentable batsmen chancing their arms with partners running out. At once the policy deflates the flinger and inflates the wielder. As a strategy it has been about as successful as the Maginot Line. Australia's tail-enders swung lustily and left the field full of beans.

England fell back. Again Strauss regrouped quickly, putting matters right with a notably forthright innings ended only by a corker from Ben Hilfenhaus that changed direction at the last moment. The lefty has not been as prolific as his comrades in the top order but has remained in command of himself and his side. He exudes quiet authority. How on earth did it take England so long to appoint him?

Much could be told from the way Strauss has taken charge of referrals. Previously he had listened to all and sundry, and especially to a gloveman convinced, like all members of the tribe, that unless the batsman middled the ball he is out. Now he made up his own mind. England did not seek a single referral in the entire innings, and none was warranted.

Inevitably, Michael Clarke's first stint as Test captain has been closely followed. In effect it has turned into an audition. On and off the field Australian cricket has been crying out for leadership and he has been given the opportunity to put up his hand. Ricky Ponting's future has become a hot and legitimate topic of debate.

The time has come for Clarke to emerge as a man able to command respect. Although modern teams have more coaches than a bus depot, still the captain is in charge. It is his task to maintain morale and decide tactics.

Overall, Clarke has met the challenge. Certainly, he has displayed the ability to think on his feet that eludes his predecessor. He set astute fields and tried to attack. He demonstrated his faith in Mitchell Johnson by giving him the new ball and made Michael Beer feel at home. Both responded. At last, too, Clarke instructed a paceman to go around the wicket to Strauss, a tactic that has often worked.

It is unwise to read too much into a single match, before the full weight of leadership has been accepted, but it has been a promising start. But Clarke has to lead with bat as well as brain.

Meanwhile, Ponting was undergoing surgery. Such are the joys. Such is the transitory nature of sport.

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