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Time for Clarke to bridge the gap

Captain needs to step up for a team that has invariably lost the key moments in the series so far

Time for Clarke to bridge the gap - Cricket News
Michael Clarke will have to shoulder the responsibility of bridging the existing gap between the two teams.
Whether it’s Moses hitting the rock, Michael Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge, selling his wife, or Shane Watson fee-fi-fo-fumming himself out in the over before lunch, any narrative, of any sort, can be profoundly affected by a single bad decision. And make no mistake, Watson’s dismissal profoundly affected the narrative of the second Ashes Test – but not necessarily the series.
 
It did contribute though, to Australia finding itself on the wrong end of a 0-2 scoreline as it heads into the third Test at Old Trafford that starts on Thursday (August 1).
 
After narrowly avoiding victory at Trent Bridge, Australia was right in the match at Lord’s. England’s 361 all out, on a decent wicket, was 100 fewer than it would have fancied, and in reaching 42 without loss after 12 overs, Australia had seen off the new ball with barely a scare. Two hours later it was 91 for 6, the match as good as over.
 
But the notion that this series has automatically and irrevocably morphed into a procession places somewhere between the foolish and the fatuous. Australia boasts a pace attack that is penetrative, varied and interesting, usually the trickiest aspect of team-building, and though it may lack a swing bowler quite as devastating as James Anderson or a spinner anywhere near as good as Graeme Swann, it has already proved it can compete with England - even before playing on a wicket likely to be more amenable than those in the first two Tests.
 
The problem, of course, is scoring runs, and increasingly, who is selected for the purpose – the impression given by Michael Clarke, the Australia captain, in his press conference was that Steve Smith will be fit and David Warner will return. But the reality is that it doesn’t much matter, because there is no glaringly correct combination, and in the main, Australia’s batsmen have done as expected. Rogers has looked solid but unspectacular and made one decent score in four attempts, while Watson continues to unleash his usual array of steaming drives before thrusting his pad into a straight ball as if playing chicken with himself. Hughes, Haddin and Khawaja have all batted well once, and the tail has functioned far better than can have been expected.
 
Consequently, various discussions about which batsmen play, and in what order, miss the point. Their batsmen aren’t as good as England’s, a reality they will most likely have contemplated - the way they batted at Lord’s certainly suggested as much.
 
But humans produce their best when feeling secure – how else does homefield advantage work? - not when fretting as to their future and facility. The reason why men like Joe Root and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are so astounding, their natural imperviousness to pressure so alarming, is because they are rarities; the majority need to learn and adapt, so Australia’s selectors must retain their nerve and allow their men to get on with it.
 
And they are not devoid of examples as to how this works; in the late eighties and through the nineties, England’s obsessive alterations hardly brought the best from the likes of Mark Ramprakash, Graeme Hick and others. Meanwhile, Allan Border pursued a policy of “pick and stick,” which seemed to muddle through. It took Steve Waugh 42 innings to make his maiden Test century – a period in which he was not piling in the fifties either – and Geoff Marsh, David Boon and Dean Jones were also given the time they needed to find themselves.
 
Similarly, the batting of Ian Bell has been the principal difference between the teams so far, and to take it a step further, its distinction from that of Michael Clarke. The two are obvious comparators, players of innate, scurrying elegance, but Australia’s success is far more contingent on Clarke than is England’s on Bell - and so far in the series, Clarke has failed Australia.  The responsibility is immense, but is no more than he owes his talent, his position and his team’s circumstance.
 
An individual sport masquerading as a team game, perhaps only American Football can compare to cricket in terms of the scope afforded to captains to alter its outcome. So, while Clarke isn’t a selector – did he mention? – he must maintain an environment that allows his players to extract the maximum from their ability. What might help is if he alleviated some of the pressure on them by moving himself up the order, not just because he is the only reliable batsman, but to show either how little it matters, or that he doesn’t mind inconveniencing himself for the team – he could emphasise it either way.
 
But because captaincy in cricket is a deal, its importance can also be overstated; no one but Mike Brearley can be Mike Brearley, and John Abrahams won one award, once. On the other hand, the opportunity for a single person to disproportionately influence events is unparalleled and constant; cricket is the definitive individual sport masquerading as team game. Clarke could be the best captain of all-time, but the most significant contribution he could make to this, or any team, will forever be batting to his potential, the reason, after all, why he’s in it in the first place. Inspiring those around him with his performances, thereby reducing the pressure on theirs, is more conducive to their success and would make him a better leader than any bowling or fielding twiddle, however creative. And if he could manage to correctly call a coin toss, so much the better.
 
As for England, it’s all a lot simpler. Each time it bats, it knows that most likely, one of the batsmen will make a decent score and couple of others will chip in, and it also knows that if Kevin Pietersen isn’t fit, James Taylor will replace him. As for the bowlers, it’s unlikely that Monty Panesar will play, because the strip is unlikely to take spin in the manner of those used for county games, leaving the only decision that between Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett: reverse swing and runs versus pace and lift. Though Tremlett is the braver and more exciting option, Cook’s observation that “a good cricket wicket” might “have lost a bit of that Old Trafford bounce” suggests that Bresnan will be retained.
 
But one thing’s for sure: over the course of the next five days, we will enjoy brilliance, controversy, characters and twists – and some bad decisions. Do not dare miss it. Let it not dare rain.
 
Teams (from):
 
England: Alastair Cook (capt), Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Jonny Bairstow, Matt Prior (wk), Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, James Taylor, Chris Tremlett, Monty Panesar.
 
Australia: Shane Watson, Chris Rogers, Usman Khawaja, Phil Hughes, Michael Clarke (capt), Steve Smith, Brad Haddin (wk), Ashton Agar, Peter Siddle, Jackson Bird, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Starc, David Warner, Ed Cowan, James Faulkner, Nathan Lyon, Matthew Wade (wk).

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