The bombshell retirement of Michael Hussey has raised a very important issue for the national selection panel, namely who is the captain in waiting of the Australian Test team?
While Shane Watson has been officially vice-captain during Michael Clarke’s reign, his ongoing problems with form and injury would perhaps only see him accede to the post on a very temporary basis.
He was going to lead the side had Clarke been unable to take the field in last week’s Boxing Day Test and the same will happen if Clarke was to miss the SCG Test, which seems very unlikely.
But while Hussey was in the side, he would more than likely have been the man to take over the reins should Clarke, for whatever reason, be ruled out of the upcoming tours to India or England.
With Hussey now out of the equation, it brings sharply into focus the leadership succession plan for the Australian team.
It was in May this year that Clarke said, “I hope I can have my impact in a short space of time and then be finished.
“I would love to see the team have success, achieve what it can achieve. And then I think it is time for me to give the reins to somebody else and go and start the other side of my life I guess.”
Over the next 12 months the Australian team has some major events on its calendar – the upcoming tour of India and then home-and-away Ashes encounters.
Beyond that it remains to be seen just how much longer Clarke wishes to continue.
By the time next season’s home Ashes campaign concludes, the skipper will be just shy of 33 years of age – not old in cricketing terms but already Clarke has intimated he does not see himself continuing on well into his 30s like former teammate Ricky Ponting and Hussey.
The other complicating factor with Clarke is the disc complaint in his back, which was first diagnosed in his late-teens.
It has regularly flared up in the past six years and, given the degenerative nature of the condition, it is never going to be cured while he continues to play, merely managed.
All these issues make it critical the selectors formulate a cohesive succession plan.
So just who are the candidates to fill the position – often termed the second most important job in Australia – should Clarke go early, through choice or circumstance?
Watson currently the carries the deputy tag but one wonders if he is truly a long term leader.
His captaincy experience at senior level has been virtually non-existent. His stand-in role as skipper of the one-day side late last summer and in the West Indies – both times when the incumbent was laid low by his back complaint – representing the few times he has led a side in senior ranks.
The role of a Test captain is a multi-faceted occupation that ranges from on-field tactical nous to off-field diplomacy and many other areas of importance in between.
While the tactical side of things will always be one of the most highly regarded components, the ability to be a leader of men, one who can empathise with his players and build them into a strong, happy and cohesive unit are also key components.
Watson, from what we have witnessed publicly, does not necessarily inspire confidence in relation to many of those necessities.
By nature he is not a gregarious person and he outwardly appears at time to be more of an inward-looking player.
The struggles with his own game of late have perhaps produced a lot of that perceived introspection but as a leader, you need to be able to handle both your own game and that of the collective – a balancing act that Clarke has excelled at during his tenure.
And, aside from those potential concerns, there is the ever-present question mark over Watson’s availability which, given his history of injury, may be enough to preclude him from being considered as a long-term replacement.
In the last few years numerous players have had the tag ‘future skipper’ attached to them, not by any means a recent phenomenon.
All-rounder Steve Smith is one.
There is no doubting his talent but just when he will be considered for a recall to the Test side is problematic.
Tasmanian ‘keeper Tim Paine is another to be identified early as a leader, with his name put forward a year or so ago, but injury has cut him down since.
And at present, Matthew Wade is the incumbent behind the stumps and with only one wicketkeeper per team, Paine’s prospects of selection, let alone future captaincy prospects, rest largely on the form of Wade in the Test arena, who at present has the support of the selectors and his skipper.
Furthermore, by his own admission Adam Gilchrist, one of the most dynamic and secure players with regard to selection, found the role of ‘keeper/captain taxing when asked to back-fill behind Ricky Ponting.
One wonders if placing that responsibility on Paine would be beneficial to his game, let alone the team.
George Bailey is the incumbent in the T20 arena but is he good enough to command a regular place in the Test side?
This summer in Sheffield Shield ranks he averages just 28, which sits alongside a career average under 40.
Ed Cowan is a highly intelligent individual, and widely regarded as possessing one of the sharpest cricketing brains in the game, but his future in the team is far from assured and, at nearly 31 years of age, any omission from the side may prove fatal to his international career.
He does have some leadership runs on the board however, having led Australia A on its recent winter tour to England.
Usman Khawaja, who is the hottest of favourites to assume a position in the batting line-up as a result of Hussey’s retirement, is another who has been mentioned in despatches for greater responsibility in the future.
But having been tried and discarded already, his main focus in the short-term will be to cement his place in the team.
Historically bowlers are seldom considered for the captaincy role and, without wishing to be unkind, there does not appear to be anyone who jumps off the page as a potential candidate among the current crop.
That leaves David Warner.
He has been given opportunities as a leader, captaining the Sydney Thunder BBL franchise last season. More importantly he skippered the Chairman’s XI last summer, a sign of faith, if not intention, by the selectors.
Warner outwardly displays confidence, some may argue at times too much with regard to his batting.
He is a late bloomer at first-class level, having played just 26 matches – 14 of them being at Test level – so he is still, in fairness, honing his game at that level.
And to date he has shown to be a fast learner. He has a Test average of 45, with three centuries, and a first-class career average of 50.
He is also regular across all three forms of the international formats.
For mine, he is the man who should to be developed as the next skipper.
But regardless of who the selectors think is the right man, he needs to be groomed for the post and if that man is a current member of the Test team, he should be made the official vice-captain – now.