Captain Michael Clarke under pressure to save Australia's fast-sinking ship

Now begins a stern test of Michael Clarke s motivational skills and tactical nous. If he can turn around this sinking ship, he would be hailed as a Mike Brearley-like genius. If he can t, daggers may be out; Hyderabad may turn out to be his Waterloo © Getty Images

By Madan Mohan

March 3, 2013 could possibly go down as the day that Michael Clarke’s proverbial honeymoon as Australian cricket captain hurtled to a bitter end. As Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay piled on the runs at increasing pace in India’s first innings response to Australia, Clarke’s cup of woes spilled over at a worrying rate.

Ever since Clarke took over from Ricky Ponting as captain of the Australian cricket team post a home Ashes debacle in 2010-11, he has seemed unable to do any wrong. There’s not much love lost between Clarke and Australian cricket fans — for a variety of reasons. But Clarke made amends, to say the least, since taking charge. Perhaps, he was hitherto so (unfairly) discredited that expectations from him were near zero and victories against Sri Lanka, India and the West Indies brought cheers. His scintillating form with the bat during this period hasn’t hurt.

Unfortunately, it has so far gone pear shaped for Australia in this instalment of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. While even pre-series reports suggested they didn’t possess some necessary strengths to succeed in India, their woeful execution hasn’t helped their cause.

Matters came to a head on Super Sunday as Pujara and Vijay feasted on an inexperienced bowling attack.  After beating a tactical retreat in the first session of play, they ramped up the scoring rate with a startling 151 runs in the last session to close the day at a daunting 311 for one — 74 runs ahead. It is rare that a pair of Indian batsmen score at five a over in a session when neither of them go by the name of Virender Sehwag. But even James Pattinson, Australia’s pace spearhead, appeared to wilt. An indisciplined bowling unit that fed India rather generously on the legside, with full tosses, long hops and other delectable treats was mercilessly put to the sword.

That they have suffered this onslaught against an Indian team in transition and suffering a crisis of confidence would rankle even more.  This time, Shane Warne has also not been able to help out with tweets expressing outrage over the pitch which has held well and fairly gone off to sleep. Australia’s batting unit too has failed to lend support to Clarke, who has continued to wield a confident willow amidst the ruins. 

The biggest worry for Clarke, though, is his tactics, which previously won much appreciation for their boldness, would now face some scrutiny. Perhaps his decision to declare the Australian innings at 237 for the loss of nine was more an act of desperation than boldness.  The team plainly did not have enough runs to play with and any they could get from numbers 10 and 11 might have been worth the effort.  If Australia’s seamers briefly appeared to justify the gamble by removing Sehwag cheaply, the script for the rest of the day turned out to be a nightmarish one.

Doubts would also be expressed over the composition of the squad, though it may not be fair to lay all the blame for this on Clarke. The expensive Nathan Lyon possessed some measure of wicket taking ability which they seem to have given away by playing Xavier Doherty in his place. Doherty, thus far, appears to be an Australian Piyush Chawla, a Peter Pan the cricketing world waits on to grow up a bit. In the absence of either Mitchell Starc or Mitchell Johnson, and the ineffective James Maxwell possibly occupying their slot, the bowling attack lacked bite and put on one of the more toothless displays you will see from an Australian unit. Whether Phil Hughes justifies his place, and what stops Clarke from promoting himself up the order are also questions likely to be asked of the Aussie skipper. 

Finding the answers to them may be the key to recovery from hereon for the Australian team. Australia may yet draw or even win this Test and finish the series on a more positive note than the present. But they have already fallen well short of the high standards set by previous sides and appeared uninspired and at times unremarkable on the whole.

Now begins a stern test of Clarke’s motivational skills and tactical nous. If he can turn around this sinking ship, he would be hailed as a Mike Brearley-like genius. If he can’t, daggers may be out; Hyderabad may turn out to be his Waterloo.  At any rate, a tough and thankless task awaits Clarke in the near future.     

(Madan Mohan is a 27-year-old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and to date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake.  He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)