The Last Days of Michael Clarke?
Barring an incredible turn around, Australia will lose the Third Test at Edgbaston today.
The battle is far from over, England’s series lead will be tentative as the action moves to Trent Bridge, but the past 72 hours has done little to ease the pressure on Australian Captain Michael Clarke, whose future looks increasingly uncertain in spite of his teams flashes of brilliance.
After winning the toss on Wednesday, Clarke’s decision to bat was understandable on a wicket Test Match Special’s Simon Hughes described as a “Bat first pitch. Good slow surface. Bit of grass, dry, may get slightly uneven later”.
An array of poor shots, mixed with some good bowling from James Anderson and co, saw Australia slump to 136 all out, before an eighth wicket partnership of 87 between Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad propelled England to a 145 run first innings lead.
In reply, David Warner’s impressive 77 might have given Australia a fighting chance on any other day, but the tourists struggled to 168/7 by the close of play on day two, and any hopes of setting England a serious target seemed lost.
Much like the First Test in Cardiff, Clarke is not to blame for the poor shot selection of some of his batsmen, nor the occasional below average spell from the likes of Mitchell Starc.
But as Captain, Clarke carries the weight of defeat to a greater degree than his team mates. The responsibility is his to rally the troops, to try and coax the best out of them day in, day out. Any loss will leave him with questions to answer – as it does for his counterpart, Alistair Cook, when England fall.
For Clarke, the issue is not that this series is proving to be far closer than many pundits believed it would be – with a startling amount of people predicting a comfortable series victory for Australia prior to the First Test – but the way in which he seems to have been worn down.
In Cardiff, Alistair Cook seemed to make all the right choices, while Clarke seemed somewhat flat. At Lords, magnificent individual efforts from Chris Rogers, Steve Smith and Mitchell Johnson paved the way for a convincing 405 run victory.
It is not so much that the series has, thus far, robbed Clarke of any opportunity to make one of those great Captaincy decision that define a series – a canny change of bowling, an inspired field placement, the perfect read of a pitch before the toss – but the manner in which the veteran batsman has carried himself during the tour and his ailing form with the bat. Clarke scored 128 against India in Adelaide last December, and led his country to World Cup glory, but he has looked a shadow of his former self during this Ashes series.
With just 94 runs in six innings (38, 4, 7, 32*, 10 and 3), the New South Wales native has looked far from convincing in recent weeks, and his first innings dismissal in Birmingham was particularly ugly given the verbal sparring he seemed to become involved in with James Anderson just moments before Steve Finn clattered his stumps.
Clarke’s once boundless enthusiasm earned him the nickname ‘Pup’; but that vibrant middle order batsman appears increasingly subdued. To say he is ‘beaten’ would be strong, but perhaps not entirely unfair. He is clearly not the Michael Clarke of old.
A degenerative back problem is never far from thought, with the 34-year old in constant discomfort as a result. The physical rigours of Test cricket are demanding enough without such a condition.
The death of close friend Phillip Hughes last year cut at the heart of Clarke’s professional and personal life, and a range of endorsements and high profile relationships have kept him in the spotlight for almost the entirety of his 12 years international career.
Clarke has dealt with a level of sustained pressure for an extended period of time, one which seems to have finally taken its toll.
At 34 he is by no means ‘finished’ per se – Chris Rogers is proof of that as he continues to rack up runs just a month shy of his 38th birthday – but that back problem, declining numbers and a deflated demeanour do not paint a pretty picture at present.
Speculation is already ripe whether Clarke will still be Captain by the end of this series. This seems extreme given how finely balanced the series is with two Tests to play, but Clarke does appear to be a man in need of a break. Perhaps a permanent one.
With the recent announcement Clarke and his wife are expecting their first child, 2015 may become the swansong for a career that yielded 8,592 runs in 112 Tests (and counting) at an average of 50.24. Clarke has a chance to walk away still relatively close to the top of the game courtesy of that World Cup win, and perhaps retaining The Ashes, once the English summer comes to an end.
Clarke, one of the finest batsmen of his generation, has enjoyed a wonderful career, but the old cliché seems particularly apt here – time catches up with us all.
And it does appear as if Clarke’s time may have come.