Clarke’s first year of captaincy better than expected

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Michael Clarke denies the David Warner issue was dealt with inconsistently (AFP : Torsten Blackwood)

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With Australian cricket’s drawn-out summer finally coming to a conclusion, it’s the perfect time to recap Michael Clarke’s first year in charge of the Baggy Greens.

The summer should be considered a successful one, highlighted by the 4-0 drubbing of India in the home Test series. But how are we sitting leading into next summer, and our quest to regain that little urn in just over a year’s time?

Cricket is a numbers game, let’s dissect the results and statistics. From August last year until May this year, Australia played 14 Test matches, winning nine, losing two, and drawing three, which saw them climb to third in the ICC Test Rankings, leapfrogging India.

Those Test matches were made up of five series, of which three were won and two were drawn; 1-0 in Sri Lanka, 1-1 in South Africa, 1-1 against New Zealand and 4-0 against India at home, then 2-0 away in the West Indies.

That means Australia’s record at home is an impressive 5-1, and away just as impressive with 4-1-3. In that time the side amassed 7,478 runs for the loss of 216 wickets at 34.62 runs apiece, while conceding 6,352 runs for 249 wickets at 25.51.

Out of the 21 players used, nine were debutants compared to four last summer – a changing of the guard. It’s no secret that there is room for improvement in the batting, especially from the younger brigade, and the search for that new batting talent is ongoing.

Despite a public outcry for the sacking of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey back in August, they proved how invaluable they still are to the backbone of Australia’s batting. Together with Michael Clarke – who copped enough of his own criticism – they scored the bulk of the runs, with some very promising innings from the one-time Twenty20 specialist David Warner.

In the 14 tests Clarke tallied 1,355 runs with five hundreds, including the mammoth 329 not out in Sydney, at an average of 58.91. Hussey and Ponting supported the new skipper with gusto, Hussey scoring 1,058 runs at 46 with three centuries, and Ponting 983 at 44.68 with a century in Sydney and a double hundred in Adelaide.

The most promising numbers were of course Warner’s. In his first nine Tests he scored 590 runs at 42.14. His gutsy first hundred in Hobart and his astonishing 69-ball hundred in Perth were two contrasting yet equally important innings.

There is still room for improvement, with a criticism of Warner being his lack of consistency, but he has definitely put his hand up to be more than a Twenty20 gun for hire.

It’s obvious how much Australia rely on Clarke, Ponting and Hussey performing well to win Test matches, as evidenced by the 3-1 defeat when only Hussey had a successful series against England last summer.

However, Hussey and Ponting both remain series-to-series prospects, and while their passion, drive and determination to succeed are clear for all to see, their age will eventually get the better of them. They are both past their best.

Who will be the new backbone during the Clarke era’s next five years? The most pressing issue is the top three. The nasty dumping of Simon Katich has been forgotten with a winning season, but would Katich have been the perfect counterbalance to Warner?

It’s interesting to note that barring the established Shane Watson, the four fringe players who have operated in that top three at various times throughout the summer have had similar results, all averaging between 27 and 29 (Watson averaged 25).

However all have suffered criticism. Marsh and Hughes had to be dropped due to poor form, but both showed glimpses of brilliance by scoring hundreds, and both showed deficiencies in their techniques. The more stable Khawaja and incumbent Cowan have chipped away without solidifying their spots with big scores, but both seem to have the temperament needed for Tests.

With Shane Watson being touted as Australia’s new number three, there is added pressure on him to find form next summer. He could create the new backbone when Ponting and Hussey call it a day. That means next summer for those six players, including Warner and the man waiting in the wings, Peter Forrest, is vital, and could make or break any or all of their careers. We are crying out for someone to stack on the runs year after year.

Almost as important for some of those players is the upcoming Australia A Tour to England later this English summer, where Australia’s fringe players will be tested in first class matches in English conditions. The batting line-up for that tour should almost definitely look something like: Hughes, Quiney, Khawaja, Marsh, Forrest, Bailey.

Steve Smith or Dan Christian are probably the likely all-rounders, with Nevill and Paine as keepers.

Batting coach Justin Langer will need to be able to impart his vast knowledge of batting in English conditions to put them in a good position for 2013 and beyond.

Places in the Australian top order are hotly contested due to not being able to find the man for the job, but competition for Australian fast bowling places comes thanks to having too many men for the job.

James Pattinson, Patrick Cummins, and to a lesser extent Mitchell Starc, all emerged on the scene. Combined with the resurgence of Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle along with the dangerous Ryan Harris, it is hard to see Mitchell Johnson finding his way back into the side after a shocking summer in terms of form and injury.

The most persistent bowlers for the entire summer were Siddle and Nathan Lyon. Lyon is another discussion on his own, while Siddle finally had some results come his way after toiling for a few seasons without luck. The big Victorian charged in again all summer for 43 wickets at 24.39, taking one every 47.9 deliveries. His knack for getting Clarke a wicket early in his spell was invaluable.

Ben Hilfenhaus also came back to life this summer after sending down a lot of juicy deliveries to English batsmen last time around. His 37 wickets in only seven Tests at 18.18, taking a wicket every almost every seven overs, is remarkable.

He, Siddle, and Harris are looking at being the senior members of a very dangerous fast bowling cartel. Harris’ 27 wickets at 23.07 was a healthy enough return to keep him wearing the Baggy Green, if only his body can stay healthy.

Waiting in the wings is the new-new fast bowling cartel of Pattinson, Cummins and Starc, who all had a taste of Test cricket this summer. Pattinson’s destructive 26 wickets at 18.96 was extremely impressive. He showed a lot of fire that people want to see during an Ashes series and was able to snare a wicket every 33.8 balls.

However he and the very promising Cummins, who shattered South Africa in his one Test match, have both been injured for long periods of time, which means Cricket Australia has the worrying tasks of continuing to build their strength for the rigours of Test cricket with plenty of four-day cricket without overloading them.

While there is great competition – seven players for three spots – there is a cloud hanging over their fitness with all missing games due to injury at varying stages and lengths. The \ more experienced Siddle, Hilfenhaus and Harris appear to be favoured, while the powers that be manage the workloads of the younger three.

Johnson will have to work his way back from scratch in Shield and maybe one-day cricket. His numbers of 9 wickets at 63.11 are terrible, especially considering he only took a wicket every 109.2 balls. It is becoming harder to see him pulling on a Baggy Green again.

Craig McDermott did an exceptional job getting the quicks to pitch the ball up and getting the ball to swing, bringing the keeper and slips in to play – something that can only be beneficial in English conditions. There is also no shortage of good young quicks coming through at first-class level who should definitely be given a run on the A tour this year.

Jackson Bird had a phenomenal year in Shield cricket, taking 53 wickets at 16, while Michael Hogan, Ben Cutting, James Faulkner and McDermott’s son Alister also had a fantastic year. The Trent Copeland experiment appears to be over, with the line and length man practically forgotten after a less than amazing Shield season.

Coming back to Nathan Lyon, the off-spinner has had a great start to his career. Have we found our long term spin solution? His start of 42 wickets at 27.83 in 13 Tests, with a strike rate of 57.5, is a very good return for someone with such little first-class experience.

Comparably England off-spinner Graeme Swann had a very similar return of 48 wickets from his first 12 Test matches at 30.39, striking every 61.2 deliveries.

The most used Australian spinner since Shane Warne’s retirement, Nathan Hauritz took 63 wickets in 17 matches at 34.98 with a wicket every 66.6 deliveries. Interestingly the Sheik of Tweak himself had taken a similar 65 wickets after 17 Tests, at 28.18 runs apiece, with an unimpressive strike rate of a wicket every 75 balls.

One of those, though, was the Ball of the Century, which none of the others have on their resumé.

The next home summer will be a huge test for the ex-curator Lyon against the dominant South Africans and the fine players of spin from Sri Lanka. Following that Australia venture to India in early 2013 could make or break him leading into The Ashes.

Of course sport is more than just statistics. As they say, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” From a leadership perspective, the new selection panel as well as management and coaching team appear to be building for the future under Clarke’s leadership.

His captaincy has proved doubters wrong; he has completely taken the reins as leader of the team. He has shown innovation and aggression with his bowling changes and field placements, while his personal game has gone to another level. His 329 not out in Sydney was an inspirational and determined captain’s knock to be remembered for generations to come.

Ricky Ponting showed class to be able to step away as captain and not interfere with Clarke’s style or decisions, while still being an important senior player and returning to form. The selectors have given plenty of younger players a go, and haven’t been afraid to remove those who haven’t taken their chance – not to mention making the tough call to bring Ricky Ponting’s stellar ODI career to a justifiable end.

All in all, Australian cricket looks to be on the mend, after a very good summer. There were a few road blocks along the way, including losing a Test match at home to New Zealand and being bowled out for 47 in South Africa. But Clarke and his men showed great character to bounce back and not fall into another low.

There is still though a lot of work to do for Australian cricket to reach its once lofty heights, and only time and results will tell who will prevail.

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