In the end, all it took was a review for Australia to lose the first Ashes Test by a measly 14 runs. The look on the Australian captain’s face said it all – disappointment and shock left him completely speechless. After all, when you make a spirited comeback into a game that was, for all practical purposes, lost to the hosts, the after-shocks of the defeat are powerful enough to sap whatever little confidence is left inside you.
That’s when you begin to question your strengths, your abilities, and your faith in your own game. And once you begin doubting yourself, you slip further and further into making more errors of judgment, and bring on more misery. What’s worse, it rubs off on your teammates and affects your functioning as a single cohesive unit.
This is what Michael Clarke must address before the second Test gets underway at Lord’s on Thursday.
In his statement to the press a while ago, the skipper stated that coach Darren Lehmann has united the team after the Warner fiasco and Mickey Arthur’s sacking days before the Ashes began. While it is commendable of a captain to back his coach in public, it doesn’t say much about his leadership abilities.
Sure, the coach is there to boost the sagging morale of his players, but Lehmann can only do so much. It’s the skipper who has to steer his boys through five days of tough cricket, and he has to do that on a consistent basis. Clarke has done so, but he has succeeded only partially.
For starters, “Pup” needs to have a heart-to-heart with each one of his players. Just like Steve Waugh did when he took over as captain, Clarke must take each teammate aside and tell him of his expectations. He needs to call them out and challenge them to give better than their best. He must back his bowlers when they go through a rough phase and put faith in his batsmen to stay at the wicket and score runs.
When deciding strategy, Clarke needs to keep in mind the collective strengths & weaknesses of his team. Each member of the team is an accomplished performer, and the Sydney lad will need all his powers of persuasion to get the best out of them. That’s where “Boof” can play the supporting role.
If there is some truth to the alleged disagreement between all-rounder Shane Watson and Clarke, the captain will need to take the first step in repairing relations. Both are immensely talented and proud individuals, and it is going to be difficult for the team if they don’t get along. For the greater good, and for the short-term at least, the two icons of modern Australian cricket will have to put their “feud” aside and work together, and when that happens, opposing teams would be in for a rough time!
As the mainstay of the middle and lower order, Clarke has added responsibility on his shoulders. Now that the swashbuckling David Warner is temporarily unavailable for disciplinary reasons, the batting looks decidedly shaky if the top order doesn’t fire. Watson briefly came into his own in the second innings, but impetuosity doesn’t have a place in Test cricket if one wants to play a long innings. Clarke, on the other hand, has failed to get going – 23 runs from two innings doesn’t do justice to a man who scored an unbeaten 329 against India last season.
He needs to make a few adjustments in his technique. Footwork against both pace and spin is absolutely essential at the highest level, and Clarke seems to have forgotten how to move his feet to the pitch of the ball. Secondly, his head position isn’t the greatest. It’s got to be held in such a way that the batsman plays the ball at eye level – the teenage Australian who gave Clarke that tip during the previous Ashes tourney had it spot on. He would do well to get some valuable advice from his old coach Neil D’ Costa if he wants to secure the urn this time.
Cricket is as much a mental game as it is physical. Clarke has been losing the battle in the mind even before he plays those incredulous shots that result in his downfall. He must relax and enjoy his game, because, after all, it gives him great joy. Granted that captaincy is not the easiest of jobs, but you grow into these things. For tough tours, such as the ongoing one, your mental make-up must be made of cast-iron.
The willingness to rough it out on the 22-yard strip, the tenacity to hang on till the last ball is bowled, and the intensity with which Australia is known to play cricket must be at very high levels in order to turn things around. When batting, Clarke must get out of the captaincy mode and switch into the confident, graceful batsman that he is. That’s what defines great leaders – the ability to switch between roles. It’s hard to do, but it can be done.
It is a long, hard road that Michael John Clarke must go on in order to regain Australia’s once-invincible stature in world cricket. There is no better opportunity than the present series, and the time is ripe for him to take the challenge head-on and turn it around. Batsman or captain – he will shine in both roles for as long as he plays. Till then, like all of Australia, the world will wait and watch!