Michael Clarke is a man with a smile. Whether it’s standing beside his wife on her wedding horse, in his tight underwear on a billboard or as he makes an iconic innings at his home ground, he lights up a picture. In real life, he seems to smile even more. He very rarely looks angry, or upset. He’s composed, calm and happy.
None of those descriptions could be used as he barked and pleaded with Marais Erasmus to stay on the ground at the end of the fourth day at Old Trafford. Clarke had carried his team on day one and two. His bowlers had backed him up on day three. On day four they had put themselves in a position to win the Test. Clarke knew it as much as England did. All they needed was time. But when time was taken from Clarke, he exploded.
Clarke knew coming off the field that he couldn’t regain the Ashes, and that Cricket Australia’s #returntheurn hashtag would have discarded. It was a culmination of poor preparation, random cricket logic and a team that wasn’t as good as the opposition. Australia were always going to lose this Ashes. A victory in this Test wouldn’t change that. It would have prolonged it.
But just by winning this Test they could have proved something to themselves. That they could win a Test against England. That the incompetence of Lord’s and the streakiness of Trent Bridge were only part of their story. That they could compete and beat England when it mattered. And they did everything they could to do it.
Chris Rogers’ first innings was the sort of knock that not even Rogers would have expected to play at Test level. It surprised England as well, while setting the scene for Australia. He drove the ball like an eager teenager, not a crusty old opener. He scored freely against a quality attack. He handled Graeme Swann well. As a 34-year-old you only get so many chances, and he may not have cemented his spot, but he will get at least all five of this Ashes based on an innings of that quality.
The second innings situation was perfect for David Warner. No matter where he batted in the order, the need to score quickly and not have all the fielders up couldn’t have been more perfect for him. His 41 was not a massive total, or one that will rock your world, but he did his job, looked comfortable doing so and looked like the David Warner Australia want him to be. With the press, Barmy Army and Aussie Fanatics he played with his new pantomime villain status. To use the lexicon, he is definitely a positive to be taken.
Steven Smith is a rough batsman. On skill and technique he is not in Australia’s best six. On fight and confidence, he might be. He is a perfect flawed batsman for a flawed team. He scores quickly, believes in himself, and when he plays spin it’s hard to believe he is really Australian. His wickets at Lord’s were handy and his fielding is going to live with us forever on Youtube highlight reels. If this team was better, they wouldn’t need him. He should have got a hundred in the first innings at Old Trafford. And a proper Test batsman would have converted it. Or at least got out in a nicer way. But as a No. 6, or even a seven, he is the sort of junkyard dog cricketer a team like the current Australia can really use.
It some ways, Brad Haddin is not needed by Australia. His selection in this team was more about team bonding and attitude. Something that Warner’s punch and Arthur’s sacking fixed much quicker. His first innings hitting was exactly what Australia needed. Haddin saves his best cricket for the Ashes, and in two innings he has shown good form and timely runs. His wicketkeeping is not going to get any better – keepers’ hands and knees don’t get better – and Mitchell Starc is not an easy man to keep too. Or on some occasions, even reach. But he’s in form, and clearly is desperate to stay in this team. If nothing else, he’ll force Matthew Wade to improve.
Ryan Harris’ spell this morning proved yet again that he is one of the best Test bowlers on the planet. He’s quick enough to hurry anyone. He’s smart enough to out-think quality players. And he does enough with the ball beat anyone. At his best he’s a carnivorous force that will stalk you until you are head. At his worst, he is injured. There is little Australia can do about that. When he is fit, he should be given the new ball and the best medical treatment they can afford.
Merv Hughes was a decent Test-quality bowler who helped keep the flame alive between Lillee and McGrath. Hughes’ job was mostly to try hard, bowl the dog spells, bounce out batsmen on flat tracks and use the conditions when they suited him.
Peter Siddle also averages 28 and takes four wickets a match. In almost every Test he is used in a different way. He’s bowled with the new ball, come on third change, and will bowl into the wind or with it. But no matter what you do with Siddle, he tries very hard, hits the pitch very hard and makes you beat him. It’s hard to hate a man who went to Euro Disney between series and gave up bacon and steak to be a better player.
Starc is capable of amazing feats with the ball, and even the bat. Playing him is a chance that Australia sometimes likes to take. Shane Watson’s comeback at the top of the order might already be over. He also only has one wicket. But his bowling has been very handy, and he deserves more. No cricketer in this series has the ability to improve more than Watson. Usman Khawaja doesn’t look a Test No. 3 right now, but it’s hard to believe a man who bats with that much time can’t make runs at this level.
Nathan Lyon is not Graeme Swann. One is a fridge that cools things, and the other an American style fridge freezer that will give you water and ice on demand. Everyone wants the bigger fridge, but life doesn’t work that way. Lyon bowls good dipping offspin outside off stump spun well toward the stumps. But Swann’s straight ball is far more devious. Swann gets more spin. Swann is smarter. Swann is a top fielder and a handy slogger. In some ways, the difference between the two teams is summed up in the spinners. Lyon tries hard; Swann has 19 wickets in this series.
Every player in this team has something holding them back including age, consistency, injury and skill. Clarke is their best cricketer. But his back is a problem. When he fiddles with his back, takes a pain pill, or does a stretch, there is little smiling. And while he might have lost the anger he had when screaming at Erasmus, that won’t be replaced with smiles knowing they have already lost their chance to retain the Ashes.
This team is not perfect, and it’s not going to be for a while. But they came into this Test as gruesome victims on a hotel bathroom floor, and they outplayed a better opposition for the entire Test. It’s not a win, but it is something to smile about.