Stephen Brenkley: Without Michael Clarke, Australia are engaged in an unequal struggle

 

Australia are up the creek. If Michael Clarke, their captain, remains unfit they will soon be without a paddle.

The defence of the Champions Trophy, which they retained in splendid style four years ago and won with barely less fuss four years before that, is already looking distinctly threadbare.

They lost to England by 48 runs in the Champions Trophy on Saturday but as their temporary captain, George Bailey, was candid enough to concede, that was flattering. "It was probably more like a 60 or 70 runs loss," he said.

Bailey and his men are engaged in an unequal struggle. Up the road in Edinburgh, the country's A team have been giving Scotland the runaround. But the A team contains five members of the squad who will contest the Ashes later in the summer.

Australia's selectors have drawn up clear dividing lines between limited-overs and Test cricket. The evidence on Saturday suggested they are wide of the mark, which is often the case when you appear to be picking teams using the pin the tail on the donkey method. Whether these tourists will suddenly be galvanised when the Test party assembles is doubtful. James Pattinson, their rapid opening bowler, was terrorising Scotland and he will definitely give England the hurry-up if his body holds together.

But, as Australia showed on Saturday, it is their batting which is all over the place and the upper order of the Test team, part of which in the shape of Shane Watson, David Warner and Phil Hughes, was on duty at Edgbaston on Saturday, does not exactly convey the sensation of the seventh cavalry galloping to the rescue.

Clarke is missed as much, probably far more, as a batsman than as a captain. He is a formidable operator in every form of the game and without him there is nobody on whom the less talented rest can lean and depend. England took full advantage of this.

There is slender hope that Clarke will return for the match against New Zealand on Wednesday, which Australia must win to have any realistic hope of progressing to the semi-finals. The genial Bailey, who has been handed a hospital pass, insisted that Clarke was desperate to play.

Make no mistake, however, that Australia are quite prepared to allow poor old George to lead them to disaster in the Champions Trophy if it means Clarke will be ready for the Ashes next month. They are confident that this will be the case but it is also true that Clarke's chronic back condition is showing no signs of easing.

Although some are already rushing to judgement, it is premature to suggest that this is the weakest Australian squad in living memory. It is bereft of great players but then it had more than its fair share of those for nearly 20 years.

The combination of Australia's weak batting and England's strong bowling, embodied by the match at Edgbaston, is one that may recur throughout the next few months. Initial evidence indicates that the upshot is likely to be similar on most occasions.

If there was a flicker of light it was in James Faulkner's 54 from 42 balls when the game was already up. Faulkner is in the Ashes squad but he has yet to play a Test. Perhaps it will all come together. Perhaps Bailey, who led with much more shrewdness and application than he gave himself credit for, will pick the team up sufficiently in the next few days to ensure they do not let go lightly of their title.

But they have stark deficiencies of style and temperament and England have the guile and experience to exploit them.

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