With Clarke out, Australia’s dearth of leaders is laid bare

Date: March 25, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

This summer has largely been one of discontent for Australian cricket fans.

Spleens have been vented and heads vigorously shaken over what the fans have perceived as significant shortcomings with regard to the national team – rotation policy, a lack of quality spin, an evaporating talent pool of class batsmen, injuries to pace bowlers, Pat Howard, John Inverarity, players failing to complete their ‘homework’ et al.

There has apparently been no shortage of things to be concerned about.

But in the past week we have actually seen another materialize that has not been greatly spoken about in the past – what to do when Michael Clarke gets injured?

Clarke was 17 years of age – six years prior to his stunning Test debut – when he was diagnosed as having a degenerative disc-related condition in his lower back.

Through 92 Tests Clarke had never missed a match due to his back complaint until this week in Delhi.

He had gone lame during games and he had sometimes been in doubt until shortly before the toss but never had he been forced to stand out.

When he had to for the final Test in India, in one fell swoop Australia lost two vitally important commodities – Clarke the batsman and Clarke the captain.

With the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey this summer when it comes to Australia’s batting stocks it is a case of Clarke first and daylight second.

He is the Black Caviar of Australia’s batting line-up.

Since his debut as Test skipper he has averaged 66 through 24 matches with nine centuries, including three doubles and a triple.

His most recent century, in the Test in Chennai, is the only one to date by an Australian in the series.

His current Test career average stands at 52.3 with David Warner holding the next best amongst Australia’s Test batsmen at 40.5.

Clarke’s absence from the Australian team leaves a massive hole in its batting stocks.

But what impact does his absence have with regard to the captaincy?

His withdrawal from the current Test has seen his deputy, Shane Watson promoted to fill the void, becoming Australia’s 44th Test skipper.

This is the same man who was suspended from playing the previous Test for failing to comply with a request from the national coach and, unlike some of the others who were suspended for the same inaction, he took aim at those who imposed the sanction and publicly stated that he was going to spend time contemplating his future as an Australian Test player.

It take didn’t long for him to reach the conclusion that he would be better off continuing to put his hand up for national selection.

His reward for choosing that path has proven to be substantial.

In the space of a few days he has found himself going from an errant student sent to the principal’s office to being chosen as head prefect.

Australia may well win the final Test – they are very much in the game after two days – and avoid the humiliation of a 4-nil series sweep.

And yes, if it does, it will have done so with Watson at the helm.

But is he the right man for the job?

Most would not categorize Watson as a natural leader and few would wish to see him as anything other than a stop-gap skipper.

Some would also argue that he may not actually deserve his place in the side let alone leading it.

In the first innings of his maiden Test as captain he made 17.

It extended his run without a Test century to 38 innings, bearing in mind that he has scored just two in his 40 Tests and 74 visits to the crease.

Since that last century – ironically in the Mohali Test of October 2010, where he was banned from playing on this tour – he has averaged 31.8.

His career Test average has now dropped to 35.8.

With his self-imposed exile from the bowling crease his place in the Test XI as a batsman alone is on shaky ground.

The worry now is just how much cricket Clarke will miss in the remainder of his career.

By its very nature, an injury described as being ‘degenerative’ denotes that it is going to suffer an ongoing deterioration.

Given Clarke has succumbed to it this time around with regard to selection it is quite possible, if not probable, that we will see such an occurrence again in the future.

And what if it flares up to a point that he was to miss several consecutive Tests, or indeed, an entire series?

At present Australia seems bereft of a suitable leader to fill such a void.

Some have said that T20 skipper George Bailey should be part of the Ashes squad in a few months’ time.

If he was the perhaps he would be the best man to take over from Clarke as skipper should he be sidelined.

The problem however is that Bailey has had a miserable summer in first-class ranks and simply does not deserve selection.

His first innings 42 in the current Sheffield Shield final has lifted his first-class average for the summer to a meagre 19.7 from 13 innings.

They are certainly not numbers that warrant a Test call-up.

Some have mentioned David Warner as a possible skipper down the track while others are impressed by Ed Cowan’s intelligence and studious nature, but truth be said, both men are still a way from guaranteeing their long term place in the side.

Indeed, that is one of the major problems confronting Australian cricket at present as there are a number of players who are still endeavouring to cement their place in the team.

With the exception of Clarke and the likes of Peter Siddle and James Pattinson there are few gilt-edged guaranteed Test players at present.

Brad Haddin was hastily flown to Mohali to stand-in for an injured Matthew Wade.

He did not look out of place despite a 14-month absence from the Test arena.

He certainly has the credentials to lead Australia having been a sound skipper for New South Wales in various forms of the game.

There are however two problems – he is not the first-choice ‘keeper as witnessed by the immediate return of Wade once fit and as he is approaching 36 years of age his future at the highest level anyway is numbered.

He may well make the Ashes squad as the number two ‘keeper, and in all honesty, if Clarke was to be ruled out at any time, given the parlous state of Australia’s emerging batting stocks a case could be made for him to play as a specialist batsman.

Haddin averaged 52 from his seven Shield matches this summer and in his 44 Tests to date his average sits at 35.5, a mark superior to Cowan, Phil Hughes and Steve Smith and a mere 0.3 shy of Watson.

But would he ever be named as tour vice-captain for an Ashes series if he was not an automatic first XI pick?

All-in-all Australia has no real heir apparent should Clarke’s Test career be curtailed due to injury.

For quite a while he has carried his country’s fortunes on his shoulders.

They seem to have stood up OK.

Let’s just hope that his back can do likewise.

First published on The Roar – the roar.com.au – on 24 March 2013