x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Michael Clarke's task of emulating Allan Border begins

The Australian team captain is faced with the challenge of reviving a side that has been used to dominating the sport, but he only needs to look back 25 years to find out how it was done then.

Michael Clarke, centre, the captain, believes Australia have already begun their return to the top of the international rankings, judging by their recent performances.
Michael Clarke, centre, the captain, believes Australia have already begun their return to the top of the international rankings, judging by their recent performances.

Michael Clarke's beleaguered team have only played one full match since they were condemned as the worst Australian Test line-up in decades.

To the relief of millions of armchair Australia selectors - for cricket is the national summer game - that one game was a gritty comeback win to level the series in South Africa.

Yet, in the latest sign of how the once mighty have fallen, only a week or so later, Clarke's injury-plagued squad was only considered on a par with New Zealand ahead of the current two-Test series, which started on Thursday in Brisbane.

And that is against a side who have not won a Test in Australia since 1985.

Those Black Caps victories, inspired by Richard Hadlee, came at a time when Allan Border was rebuilding the team after the World Series Cricket schism of the late 1970s, the retirements of Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell, and the further fractures caused by the rebel tours to South Africa.

Border's teams went 14 Tests without a win before gaining traction, winning the 1987 World Cup and then the 1989 Ashes.

That ushered in a long period of dominance for Australia that rendered the dark days of the mid-1980s to the deep recesses of memory.

Such memories were sharply revived earlier this month when Clarke's team were dismissed for 47 and lost the first Test by eight wickets to South Africa at Cape Town.

Malcolm Conn, the respected cricket analyst, noting the insipid innings and a record of two wins in 12 Tests, declared them "the worst Australian side in a quarter of a century".

"Not since Allan Border single-handedly held the team together in the mid-1980s has the Test side played so poorly," he said.

Such sentiments were echoed in mainstream and social media, and in conversations across the island continent.

That cloud of pessimism was temporarily lifted in the next game, thanks largely to the efforts of Pat Cummins, the 18-year-old debutant fast bowler, who took six wickets in the second innings and hit the winning runs in a thrilling two-wicket victory at Johannesburg.

Things seemed to be on the up until Australia's apparent teenage saviour and four other front-line players were ruled out of the opening Test against New Zealand due to injury.

To make matters worse, the young quicks who were added to the Test squad made little impact in a tour match against New Zealand last weekend. Even New Zealand coach John Wright, who played in the 1985 win, courteously thanked the Australian selectors for giving his batsmen a look at the young bowlers.

After flaying the Australia A attack for 175, including 16 sixes at Allan Border Field, Jesse Ryder could barely conceal a smirk as he spoke with a quiet assuredness about New Zealand's prospects.

"We got what we needed out of it," Ryder said of the four-day tour match. "Going into the first Test, everybody's confidence is pretty high."

A victory "would mean the world to the [New Zealand] cricket public", Ryder said. "It would mean the world to us, too."

But on the opening day of the first Test, the young pacemen rose to the occasion with Mitchell Starc taking two for 52 and James Pattinson claiming the wicket of Ross Taylor, the dangerous New Zealand captain, with the Black Caps eventually bowled out for 295.

Nathan Lyon, himself only 24, had the best bowling figures with four for 69.

Day three began on Saturday morning.

Australia started the last southern summer in reasonable shape. They were no longer No 1 in the Test rankings and were still rebuilding following the retirements of some of the greatest players in generations - including Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist - but were still considered good enough to win back The Ashes on home soil.

By the end of the series against England, Cricket Australia was in crisis after an unprecedented run of innings defeats.

Amid the uproar from fans unaccustomed to such losses, former Test captains Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh - who guided Australia through their most sustained period of Ashes domination with eight consecutive series wins from 1989 to 2002/03 - were recruited to help in a broad review that led to an overhaul of the whole structure around the national team.

Now, Australia have a new captain, a new coach and a new selection panel that is all overseen by a newly created role of general manager of performance - a role filled by Pat Howard, a former rugby union international, pharmacist and businessman.

Clarke has replaced Ricky Ponting as captain and is part of a five-man selection panel that also includes Mickey Arthur, the coach, and is headed by John Inverarity. Arthur, who guided South Africa to the top of the Test rankings during his five years in charge of the Proteas, was earlier this month unveiled as Australia's first foreign coach.

With Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson, Ryan Harris, Cummins and batsman Shaun Marsh out of the opening Test against New Zealand, Arthur started his first game in charge with an attack featuring the two uncapped pacemen - Pattinson and Starc - and led by Peter Siddle, who has played just 25 Test matches himself.

David Warner, a success in the shorter formats, was handed his Test debut as opening batsman alongside Phil Hughes, who has not cemented his spot in the team.

Clarke, who is leading the least experienced Australia line-up in decades, does not possess the obstinate character traits of Border - a legendary figure in his own country after galvanising a team of mediocre talents into a winning combination across the years after the tearful exit of Kim Hughes in 1984 - Taylor or Waugh, but he does have their backing, and the support of the team.

"What I did take out of South Africa was the character and courage of the blokes in this team. The way we won that last Test is very exciting for all of us," said the 30-year-old Clarke, who averages 46 in 74 Test matches.

"We know we've got a lot of work to get back to be the No 1 Test team in the world, but in my opinion we've started that."

Clarke has two wins, two losses and two draws as Australia captain going into his first home summer leading the team and is coming off two centuries in his past three Tests.

"We've had some great success in Sri Lanka. We won the one-day series in South Africa and levelled the Test series against the No 2 Test team in the world in their own back yard, so I certainly see a lot more positives than negatives in this team at the moment," Clarke said.

The Australians have inched up one spot from an all-time low No 5 Test ranking so far this year.

Bob Simpson, the former Test captain who was hired as the first full-time coach of the Australia team in the Border era, recently told a crowd at a Hall of Fame induction that the current state of Australian cricket reminded him of when he was hired in 1986.

"What we did then was pick players who you think are going to make it and give them as much encouragement as possible," he said.

"You've got to be very careful that you don't expect everyone to be like the past greats. It's vitally important to let a player develop in his own way and fit him into the structure."

Arthur says he has a similar ethos, so it is likely talented players will get an opportunity, while selectors must also make concessions to the more crowded calendar that existed in the 1980s by using a rotational policy.

"We've got to be realistic. We've got to take it tour by tour, but ultimately if we keep chipping away and getting the success we want, in a year or two down the line I firmly believe Australian cricket can be back at the top of the tree," Arthur said.

He has been given no clear deadline to achieve a No 1 Test ranking, but expects he can achieve it before his contract expires after the 2015 World Cup.

"It'll be two Ashes series and a Twenty20 World Cup and a 50-over World Cup. By that time we'll have a really good indication of where we're at."

Greg Chappell, the former Australia captain who later became the coach of India before returning to a talent identification role in Australia, said there were more good players emerging now than there was a couple of years ago.

"I'm excited about the prospects. The next couple of years will be very exciting," he said.

Asked what advice he would give to a public concerned about the state of the national team, Arthur said: "Have a bit of patience, but also embrace the excitement with it. There's a lot of really exciting talent there - young talent needs time."