As an Englishman, there is a very powerful instinct somewhere among the cocktail of testosterone and (too much) sugar inside of me, that calls out to praise the day that gives the Australian cricket team hardship. To mock as the Aussie fans weep; to gloat whilst they bleat. Me, being the objective minded cricket lover that I am (and also a third generation Irish immigrant on both sides of the family tree), resist these jingoistic impulses best as I can. Admittedly it has proven to sometimes be a difficult task, like when Ricky Ponting became the equivalent of a batting terminator (with extra swearing); or when Mitchell Johnson would actually take wickets. That always came as a shock: he’d spray out boundary ball one after the other, like your female South African primary school teacher did; at least she had the excuse of bowling underarm. With Mitchell Johnson thankfully on the side-lines, the only irritating thing about the Aussie team nowadays is Shane Watson’s inevitable scores of sixty plus two wickets every match, and David Warner’s very existence. They actually seem to be a decent team again and are no longer dropping down the rankings Felix Baumgartner style; they even have the chance to be number one again if they beat South Africa in their upcoming test series. To me, they go into the series as favourites. Winning in Australia is a far bigger challenge than in England (they’ve only tasted series’ defeat twice in 19 years on home soil) and unlike the English, Australia are undeniably a team on the up, due, in no small part to the leadership qualities and performances of their skipper.
Michael Clarke never endeared himself much to the cricketing public. Down under he was adored for being the archetype of the new Australian cricketer: confident; self-assured; born to win and pretty in a bleach blonde, metal studded kind of way. Elsewhere, he was disliked for being the archetype of the new Australian cricketer: arrogant; smug; a bad winner and brash in manner and style. That was at least the view of a cynical Pom. Since taking the captaincy however, I find myself glad to renege on my previous views of the man. Always an elegant stylist with bat in hand, he now has the grit and guts of Waugh; the will to dominate of Ponting and, most vitally, the inventive tactical nous of Mark Taylor. What Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting gained in personnel, Michael Clarke seems eager to match them with experimental flourishes and forward minded thinking. He holds himself with great poise on the field; it’s clear to see the relish he takes with each fielding and bowling change, as well as the respect his team mates have of him. More often than not his intuitions are proven correct. Not since Mark Taylor has the cricketing world seen an Australian captain with such a natural disposition toward the job. He’s a classy man and maturity suits him well.
Australia arguably possesses the deepest test-class fast bowling stock in the world, a key ingredient in every great side. The thin batting and reliance on two men (Hussey and Ponting) in their late thirties remains a problem, alongside the role of spinner. Nathan Lyon has had a very respectable introduction to the international game; just unfortunately it’s also his introduction to first class cricket as well. His lack of experience shows up in his action, which looks almost lazy and lightweight; though Clarke uses him very well, I’m not convinced he has the foundations or skills to build a stellar test career on. Their remains little in reserve and one only hopes that Lyon continues learning his trade and Michael Clarke is able to shield him as best he can throughout this process.
If the batsmen can live with the pace of Steyn; steepling bounce of Morkel and guile of Philander, I see no reason why the Australian team can’t open their presents on Christmas morning as number one team in the world again, a mantle they must desperately desire. The back to back Ashes series’ next year looms large on the horizon (alongside the impending retirement of Hussey and Ponting) for the Australian team. The challenge lies in how Clarke can lead his team to victory in the next eighteen months, whilst building a team to conquer all once again. Regardless of what happens, they have the ideal man for the job.