Old Trafford, Manchester, England — During the past few days, there has been plenty of talk about Michael Clarke. The gossip was that the bad back is caused by stress and could only deteriorate. The speculation was about how long he can go on as captain. Australia’s most prolific batsman had scored only 102 runs in four Test innings so far. His best score was 51. It was beginning to look like a crisis of leadership.
Clarke responded in the way that leaders are supposed to. On the first day of the Ashes Test at Old Trafford in Manchester, he won the toss, and, by scoring 125 not out, provided the spine for a batting performance that restored some of the team’s battered pride. At close of play Australia were 303 for 3, which goes a fair way to preventing England winning three Tests in succession.
Clarke put himself up a place in the order, coming in second wicket down after Usman Khawaja was the victim of an execrable umpiring decision. Clarke put on 47 with Chris Rogers for the third wicket and no less than 173 for the unbroken fourth, with his able lieutenant Steve Smith. Clarke has batted for four hours and 43 minutes and scored 17 fours.
When Graeme Swann was turning the ball sharply and threatening to wreak havoc in a vulnerable batting order, Clarke took two paces down the wicket and clouted him back over the his head for two fours. His 50 came off only 67 balls.
He did not intend to fritter away the opportunity. The pitch was a good one, getting better throughout the day under a hot sun. He drove fiercely straight and through the covers and mischievously guided a short ball high over the slips’ heads. He wanted that hundred so badly that he spent 45 minutes in the 90s, scoring six hard-fought singles and just one boundary. The second 50 had taken 102 balls, but once it was safely on the scoreboard, Clarke began to bat imperiously. Between tea and the close Australia added 123 runs and England didn't have the sniff of a wicket.
That had not always been the case. At the start of the innings Shane Watson scratched around nervously, like a man deeply conscious of his failure to meet expectations. He survived three crises before tamely edging a catch to first slip. His score was only 19, but the first wicket partnership was already worth 76. At the other end, Chris Rogers was playing with a stylish fluency which is familiar to crowds in England County and Australian Shield cricket, but which he has disciplined out of existence in the series so far.
Rogers’s 50 came off 49 balls, but as his hundred drew closer he became more circumspect. He had punished bad balls ruthlessly, but now he began to play and miss. He had got as far as 84 out of 129 when Swann trapped him lbw. He had also showed his colleagues that the devil might have been in their minds rather than the pitches.
Khawaja had been unlucky, given out caught behind by Tony Hill, the New Zealand umpire and confirmed after a review by Kumar Dharmasena, the third umpire. Appalled, Cricket Australia have referred the decision to the ICC. But at that point Australia’s fortunes changed, and Steve Smith was the beneficiary of most of the new-found luck. Matt Prior and the slip cordon were sure that Smith had edged a catch to the keeper. Umpire Marais Erasmus disagreed. Dharmasena backed him. Perhaps he was compensating for his earlier error.
Australia’s luck had been transformed by a number of umpiring decisions that the English fielders, in turn, regarded as beyond belief. They were confident that Smith had edged a catch to the keeper. When Erasmus said not out, the review upheld his decision. Swann was confident that he had dismissed Smith with a ball that turned sharply into his pads. Umpire Hill judged it not out. The review failed because Hawkeye showed the ball hitting the leg stump; that provided sufficient doubt to allow the umpire’s decision to stand.
England has used its quota of two reviews but, when Stuart Broad appeared to have got his 200th Test wicket for England, with a ball bound for Smith’s middle stump, Umpire Hill did not agree. Riding this luck, Smith went on to reach 70 not out at the close.
Both sides are disenchanted by the Decision Review System. One problem is that it is administered by so few umpires. Because English and Australian umpires are not permitted to work in Ashes Tests, only four on-field umpires are available for this series – a Pakistani, a South African, a Sri Lankan and a New Zealander. It is an exhausting business demanding complete concentration. It is a system which is bound to fail and has done so regularly in this series. It urgently requires reform.
While Clarke and Smith were piling on the runs the No. 6 batsman was looking on from the dressing room. This is the feisty David Warner who has been speedily rehabilitated, and picked in place of Phillip Hughes. The other unforced change was dropping Ashton Agar, the hero of the Trent Bridge Test. His place has been taken by a proven Test spinner, Nathan Lyon.
Stephen Fay is a former editor of Wisden and author of books about the Bank of England and the collapse of Barings.