Time now for Clarke to build his own model

IF CRICKET were an individual game, the emotions shown by Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke at the end of the South African series would have made no sense at all.

Ponting - 32 runs at 6.40 - was full of smiles and cheeky humour. A line or two had vanished from his face. His hair seemed to be growing thicker. The smiles were suppressing great emotion, but this was overwhelmingly a relieved man. If less than happy with the way his Test career had ended, he still looked like an enormous burden had been lifted from him. Seventeen years of learning how to cover his feelings with a professional veneer - all over!

On the other hand, Clarke - 576 runs at 144 - was livid. The Australian captain, a forward-oriented and positive soul, had seldom shown such anguish.

Those who habitually misinterpret his actions have accused him of being too breezy about his cricket. Here was a man absolutely gutted by defeat. Filthy.

This mood had arisen on that grim Monday in Adelaide, the day of South Africa's epic survival in the heat. James Pattinson's injury was the turning point in the series, but even then, Australia's bowlers should have been good enough to take six wickets in 128 overs. They weren't. Clarke tried everything, including several spells with the ball, and his frustration was deep. On top of it all, his two remaining pacemen were broken by the effort.

He wouldn't have been human if he wasn't feeling let down. His leadership had, to a degree, got Australia to the brink of upsetting the world number one. He had been worth three or four players on his own. His smoke-and-mirrors deployment of thin bowling resources, his thoughtful planning for each opposing batsman, and of course his sumptuous batting had done all a cricket captain can do. Some of his players had risen with him, but in the end the combined strength in skill and mentality wasn't quite there. In Clarke's reaction, there was a flash of that old Allan Border look - What else can I do for you blokes?

What an opportunity missed. If Australia had beaten South Africa in Adelaide, this developing group would have gained years in self-belief. It would have confirmed the gains made against India, and built a platform to take to England. But South Africa's survival had the opposite effect, which soon became clear in Perth, where a good first-up performance from the fresh bowlers was offset by a batting collapse and then, effectively, a bowling collapse.

Ponting's retirement announcement cannot have helped. These final shows are good for cricket - the ritual of farewell is an important part of the bond between audience and performer - but this one ended up being an unneeded distraction.

Clarke declined to blame the team's play on Ponting's announcement, but his face suggested that it was just another thing they could have done without.

Ponting has been something like a parent to the Australian players and, as with the death of a parent, his departure will bring out the team's true character. No longer can there be Ponting loyalists and Clarke loyalists. There is now only one captain in the changing room. Although Clarke's devotion to Ponting was strong, he will be able to grow into the space the senior man left. Since becoming a selector, Clarke has had a power Ponting never had. This is Clarke's team now, fully rather than transitionally, and it will be intriguing to see how they respond.

Phil Hughes' selection is a key part of that picture. Clarke is a supporter of Hughes. They share a coach, Neil D'Costa, and a western Sydney club cricket background. It is significant that Clarke's probable preference was the one backed by the selection panel. Also, having Hughes on the field gives Clarke a man whose fealty is unquestioned. If Hughes establishes himself with runs, it strengthens his captain.

Stripping away all the inessentials, cricket captaincy comes down to two basics: leading by example, and bringing the best out of others. Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell enjoy their status among the best Australian captains because they had both qualities. Both got great results out of teams with chronic weaknesses in personnel. Clarke's batting, since assuming the captaincy, has set the example. The next 12 months will go a long way to showing whether he will take his place in the topmost rank of Test captains.

The Sri Lanka series is a potential banana skin, especially if the visitors' strong batting line-up puts the Australians under pressure. Sri Lanka's bowling attack is no weaker on paper than those New Zealanders who drew 1-1 with Australia a year ago. Clarke will be looking at the coming three Tests as the first step in a campaign that takes in a tour to India and then away and home series with England.

He would be well advised to watch some television. England has taught some lessons on how to win in India, while reasserting its own credentials.

The core of the Ashes-winning team - Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann - is intact. Monty Panesar has been outstanding on Indian wickets, and while Stuart Broad has struggled he will be a different bowler outside India.

Most importantly, the English team has had a psychological edge over Australia, which will last until Australia again learns how to beat them. It's all about finishing games off. Which is another reason why, until Australia gets into a dominant position against a top team and completes the job, that last-day in Adelaide will keep hurting.

This story Time now for Clarke to build his own model first appeared on WA Today.