It’s now twenty four days until the Ashes get underway – again. Let’s hope these back-to-back series never catch on in a big way, because it does feel rather ridiculous to go straight from the intense drama and emotion of one Ashes contest, straight into another one.
Peculiar though it feels, we’ll just have to put up with it, and now that our England squad have arrived in Australia we can justify kicking off one of the most important elements of any Anglo-Australian clash – the speculation.
And so, over the next couple of weeks, we’ll take a look at some of the key individuals – the gossip, the rumours, their prospects, and how all of those could affect the outcome.
Let’s start with Michael Clarke, who was back in the nets last week – which signalled that in all likelihood he has surmounted his back injury problems, and will play not only at the Gabba, but a full role in the series.
This is rather disappointing news to us England supporters, because Clarke had more or less ‘promised’ us that his perennially dodgy back would rule him out of at least the first test.
We’ve been here before. In the run-up to this summer’s Ashes, speculation was rife that the Australian captain might miss some or even all of the series. As late as mid-June, ABC commentator Jim Maxwell – who’s both well-placed, and not given to hyperbole – described Clarke as “really struggling”. But he went on to play in all five tests.
It’s almost as if Pup is toying with us – teasing and tantalising English supporters by constantly flirting with the notion of his absence, only to come through in the end fit after all. We could be forgiven for suspecting it’s all a mind game, in the style of his great friend and mentor Shane Warne, but that’s not quite Clarke’s style.
Of course, his notorious back could still give way. If so, what would Australia be like without Michael Clarke, their only world class player (with the possible exception of Ryan Harris), and certainly their only batsman of both substance and achievement. How more fragile still would they be without him, and in terms of captaincy, who could fill the void of his experience and authority? Fat Shane?
On the other hand, despite Clarke’s prodigious global record, he has rarely done the business against England. I’m struggling to think of a single Ashes test which has been won by his runs. As we’ve mentioned before, a little-noticed aspect of this summer’s series was his, overall, modest contribution, with scores of 0, 23, 28, 51, 187, 30*, 6, 21, 7, and 28*. Yes, he scored one big century, at Old Trafford, but it didn’t win the match, and when his side were collapsing to eventual defeat at Trent Bridge, Lord’s, and Durham, he went missing with the rest of them. Neither did he contribute much in 2005, 2009, or 2010/11.
That said, I’ve probably gone and hexed it now. By saying what I have, inevitably Clarke will now make match-winning centuries at Brisane, Adelaide and. Perth and regain the urn single-handedly.
Meanwhile, in captaincy terms it’s fashionable to laud Pup’s florid strategic style, with his dinky short mid-ons, and provocative leg slips. But as skipper he’s won few big series, and he rarely seems a unifying or universally popular figure within the Australian dressing room.
Clarke is hardly one of the lads, and a skilful man-manager, of, say, Michael Vaughan’s ilk, would not have allowed a feud to develop between him and a senior player, as as happened between Clarke and Watson. It’s been suggested that the popular George Bailey, currently the T20 skipper, might be better placed to helm the test ship, too.
So where does all that leave us? Via a highly sophisticated process of analysis -ahem – we’ve crunched down all the permutations, and now present these, the results of The Full Toss jury:
Chances of Clarke playing at some point in the series: 95%
Chances of Clarke playing at the Gabba: 80%
Significance to outcome (out of 10): 7.5
Probability of Australia winning without him: 15%
If absent, most likely replacement as captain: Brad Haddin.
And most likely replacement as batsman: given their current resources, probably my mum.