ASHES: How long can pup pay the price?

BRISTLING with pre-meditated intent, Michael Clarke scampered out to the first ball he faced yesterday, delivered by Monty Panesar, but merely sliced it on a meek arc towards cover.

Two fieldsmen tracked it greedily and for as long as it hung in the air, fateful possibilities hovered with it.

So dismissed, Clarke’s shot selection would be reviewed as reckless and unworthy of the Test captain.

Australia would be 6-273 and vulnerable; Mitch Johnson could not be expected to repair the rent every time.

England would be in before lunch, and its batsmen would expose the scale of Clarke’s waste on a benign pitch.

The balance of power in this Ashes series would shift back towards the holder.

The grumbling about Clarke — volume of runs and deftness of captaincy notwithstanding — would rise again.

The captaincy is one of those posts in which it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time, but Clarke has found public favour especially elusive.

It fell to him to lead the team in a time of inevitable decline. 

And a time when the media lens is wider than ever, so that warts-and-all frequently becomes warts only.

It was and is not in Clarke to bring to the job the gravitas and statesmanship of, say, Mark Taylor. 

Critics have a point, but exaggerate it by sanctifying his forebears and exalting their times.

A record that bears exact comparison with Ricky Ponting at the same stage of their careers could not entirely counter this, nor could alert and lively captaincy on the field.

So it was that Clarke’s high-class second-innings century in the first Test in Brisbane and Australia’s rousing victory was overshadowed by the contretemps at the end, and the part Clarke and his curled lip played.
Now another mini-judgment day was upon him.

The ball fell safely and, in a way, all that followed flowed from that happenstance. 

Not in the least chastened, Clarke and accomplice Brad Haddin hunted the English with the Lehmann credo manifest.

Clarke’s shots constitute not merely a range, but a repertoire.

England’s spinners chose lines and set fields that required him to come down the pitch and hit against the spin.

He did it, repeatedly and unerringly, but don’t try that in B grade. 

In this form, Clarke resembles a skilled carpenter, hammering in nails, never mishitting one, although dimly, always conscious, that a false blow means at least in a bruised thumb.

There were none.

How Clarke sometimes must wish he could handle sceptics and doubters with the lightly worn authority of his batting.

Haddin, able still to smear a cricket ball like few others, and more judicious now in his old age, was yin to Clarke’s yang.

They put on 200 at four an over, run a minute.

There is no more fatalistic entity in sport than the cricket team with the momentum running against it. Try as England did to keep up its spirits, soon it was demoralised. 

One by one, it fell prey to all the gaffes Australia committed in the winter, botching chances, squandering three referrals and, at its most dismal moment, sparing Haddin when debutant Ben Stokes was found to have overstepped. Adelaide Oval mocked and jeered.

Haddin, in wicketkeeper’s fashion, rubbed in this sore point, and momentarily the match spluttered as did the first Test. 

But when the paths of Clarke and Kevin Pietersen crossed at lunch, Pietersen made an unaffected point of patting Clarke on the back.

Even in dismissal when Clarke fell, popping Stokes to mid-wicket, there was a moral about how even for a master, a Test innings is a vigil, its end never more than one ball away.

The damage was done.

With educated blows, Haddin rounded off his excellent century and No. 10 Ryan Harris clattered an unbeaten half-century. 

Here, condensed, was the turn of events; as England lorded it over Australia in this fixture three years ago, Harris made a king pair.

When England batted, Cook was as King Canute, trying and failing to stand against the tide. 

Johnson’s first seven balls were the seven fastest of the match, and his 11th screamed past Cook’s hesitant outside edge and into his off stump. 

The shape of the day’s play made this almost inevitable. 
It was all England could do to cling on to stumps.

Cricket likes to think of itself a morality play, but sometimes is too pious.
The lesson of Clarke’s career is that every country has its price.

Clarke pays it in runs, elegantly bundled, punctually delivered, muting the judgments upon him, buying due respect.

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