x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Michael Clarke puts a new spin on the Australian captaincy

Michael Clarke used to have Ricky Ponting posters on the wall when he was a teenager, but as a batsman and leader, he could not be more different.

The Sydney Test of January 2008 was one of the most fractious contests that sport has ever seen. The great performances it featured were overshadowed by a whole host of other factors - allegations of racist abuse, poor umpiring and one captain, Anil Kumble, asserting that only his side had played within the spirit of the game.

Australia's 16th consecutive Test win also marked the end of an era. In 40 games since, the once all-conquering side, who wear the baggy green with such pride, have won just 18 and lost 14. Series have been lost against England (twice), India (twice) and South Africa.

After more than a decade of the relentless dominance once associated with the West Indies, last winter's Ashes debacle saw Australia slip to mid-table mediocrity.

It prompted the Argus Review, which has come up with a whole raft of recommendations to restore Australian cricket's prestige. Gallingly, with England now setting the standard, Australia have clearly looked at the measures put in place by their old adversary after England's own Ashes debacle in 2006/07.

Talk and PowerPoint presentations only get you so far, though. Cricket matches are won with runs and wickets, and Australian cricket was guilty in the recent past of falling for business-school gobbledygook from charlatans intent on over complicating a simple game.

They came to Sri Lanka as underdogs, but with a team once more intent on paying attention to the little things. An inexperienced bowling attack complemented each other superbly - Ryan Harris's skilful bustling pace, Trent Copeland's accuracy, Shane Watson's reverse swing and Nathan Lyon's flight and off-spin variations on his debut.

As ESPNCricinfo's Daniel Brettig wrote after the 125-run victory in Galle: "This Australian side is an enormous distance from being a great team, or even a very good one, but it has shown willingness to work hard and scrap heartily for success in drastically unfamiliar climes."

The change in leadership undoubtedly helped. Even the greatest captains have a limited shelf life. Ricky Ponting had been at it for nearly seven years, and a new approach was needed. Michael Clarke used to have Ponting posters on the wall when he was a teenager, but as a batsman and leader, he could not be more different.

They are both driven men, but in vastly different ways. Ponting is the old dog of war, as committed as anyone to upholding the baggy green legacy.

Clarke's metrosexual image has never sat easily with some of his teammates or fans, but appearances are deceptive.

Like his predecessor, he values the Test cap more than anything. As a 12 year old, he told his parents that he would play for Australia, and there was a telling vignette in his debut Test at Bangalore seven years ago.

As he neared three figures, he signalled to the dressing room. Within minutes, the 12th man had come out with a baggy green cap. Clarke took off his helmet and donned it. Moments later, a push through midwicket got him to the landmark. The fashionably spiked hair is only one peripheral part of the story.

The early signs are that the slow bowlers will find him a far better captain to work with. His own left-arm spin aside, Clarke was coached by Neil D'Costa, whose parents are from south India. As a child, he spent hours in the backyard playing on under prepared pitches. On a desert-dry surface in Galle, that familiarity showed. "I enjoy the challenge of playing quality spin bowling," he once said. "I don't fear it."

He eased to 60 from just 80 balls in the second innings, taking 55 off the spinners. In isolation, it was splendid stuff. Coming from the man entrusted with restoring Australian pride, it was much more than that

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