The first time Michael Clarke captained an Australian side, it was in a Twenty20 against New Zealand in December 2007. Regular skipper Ricky Ponting had opted to rest ahead of a big home series against India, which Australia – then the top-ranked team in the world – won amid plenty of drama and no little controversy.
Four years later, India are back in Australia and this time Clarke – now permanent captain – is the man who will be leading the team, but one that is in the unfamiliar position of being ranked below India, at fifth.
That, however, is just one of the many challenges which Clarke faces ahead of what is easily the biggest (and longest) test of his short career at the helm of Australia’s Test side – a four-match series at home against India.
So far, since taking over in March, Clarke’s record stands at three wins, two draws and two losses in his seven Tests in charge. While the numbers don’t make for impressive reading, what is more worrying is the manner in which Australia have played in these matches. The dominant wins in Galle and Brisbane – in which, incidentally, Clarke played a major rile with the bat - have been offset by incredible lows in Cape Town and Hobart, including the manic day which saw Australia bowled out for 47, their lowest total in 109 years. "One step forward and two steps backwards," was how Clarke aptly described it.
The inconsistency is largely down to the lack of form of Australia’s senior and more experienced players, the inexperience of the in-form younger ones, and a crop of injuries. Currently, Clarke can only rely on James Pattinson and Peter Siddle, what with Pat Cummins out until mid-January, Mitchell Johnson for four to five months, and Ryan Harris still uncertain for the Boxing Day Test. That is one headache, but it is the batting - prone to sudden collapses - that will be causing him greater concern. Never mind the individual form of Ponting, Michael Hussey, Phil Hughes or Brad Haddin; in eight Tests this year, Australia’s top seven batsmen have collectively averaged 33.5, their lowest since 1988. Injuries to Shane Watson, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine and others have only served to add to the feeling of crisis.
Clarke’s personal form – dire at the start of the year when he averaged 18 in the 12 months before replacing Ponting – is the only silver lining for an under-fire Australian middle order. Although he has been a constant member of the side since his Test debut in 2005, there had been very few defining innings in his career. That has changed in recent months.
His confident 60 in Galle, the captain’s knock of 112 in Colombo, the sublime 151 amid the ruins in Cape Town and the 139 in Brisbane – all produced in different conditions – have given the impression that the additional responsibility of captaincy is bringing out the best in Clarke. The only worry, again, will be the inconsistency: apart from his two hundreds in the series against South Africa and New Zealand, he was out for 22 or fewer in the other five innings.
Clarke has also shown promise as a captain and a man-manager, despite having inherited a side lacking in skills and stability. He has managed to get the best out of players despite many of them being debutants and also displayed an astute tactical nous, inventiveness, focus and mental toughness.
The challenge for Clarke, though, is not limited to raising his team’s performance to match up to the Indians. The upcoming series will provide the man who is still known as ‘Pup’ a chance to break away from the past and stamp his own personality on the team. Both sides have a come a long way since the hostility on the last tour by India, which was overshadowed by the ‘Monkeygate’ scandal that led to plenty of bad blood and even calls for Ponting’s sacking. Clarke, who was part of the infamous Sydney Test, will not want to be labeled as arrogant or belligerent - in any case, this team does not yet have the results to back it up - and so he will have to ensure there is no repeat of that unpleasantness.
Provided Australia do well and his own good run of form continues, Clarke may also finally be able to change the public perception about him back home and earn the respect of the fans as national skipper. Throughout his career, the 30-year-old has been disparaged for his stylish appearance, model girlfriends and flashy lifestyle. He was not so much the popular, rather the default choice as captain after Ponting; and so he will be motivated to win over the fans who once voted him as Australia’s most over-rated cricketer.
The India series, then, in many ways is critical for Clarke, the captain. The start of his era has been cautious and difficult. Australia are in a period of transition, struggling to find the personnel and confidence that once made them one of the greatest-ever sides. So as Australia’s 43rd Test captain, who will oversee the exit of past greats and the entry of new stars, Clarke has the unenviable task of leading the team out of this period of turmoil, and how he handles it will shape not only his own future, but that of the Australian team as well. The Argus review has also given him more power than any of his predecessors, and he and new coach Mickey Arthur will have a say in selection, which adds to the pressure.
Having waited so long to assume leadership, Clarke has shown enthusiasm and determination for the rebuilding process, and having been a part of the team that dominated world cricket not too long ago, he will want a return to the glory days. However, having also seen the final days of Ponting’s captaincy, Clarke will have understood that he will need victories and runs to prove himself as a leader. So far under Clarke, Australia have yet to lose a series of any kind. If the case remains the same come the end of the India series, the new skipper will have come a long way in answering the questions currently facing him and his team.