• England v Australia, 3rd Ashes Test, Old Trafford, 1st day

Forgotten Phil watches his captain's mastery

Mark Nicholas at Old Trafford
August 1, 2013 « Live County Championship coverage | Chartbeat test »
Michael Clarke's knock was an innings crafted by a beautifully straight bat, an elegant form and the purest timing © Getty Images
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One full day watching Australia bat - a novelty in itself this series - and the mind kept wandering to the Australian dressing-room where Philip Hughes sat watching too. Forgotten Phil. I was there in Durban when he made two hundreds in the match, a free spirit set free. I was there in Sydney when, on a difficult pitch, in a Sheffield Shield match that mattered, he made a hundred that lifted the heart. And I heard about a score of 90 odd in Hobart, on an impossible pitch, with which even the meanest critic could find no fault.

But these innings were four and five years ago. There have been further highlights since and many lowlights too. The Hughes we see today is a shadow of the stroke-maker back then. He has become a cricketer ripe for the sack, a sitting duck for a selectorial whim. What to do next lads, they wonder. Simple, drop Hughesy.

Of the great pities surrounding the Australian team right now, Hughes is the greatest. Rare talent is just that, rare. An eagle eye and fast hands need a calm and clear head to prosper. The unbeaten 81 at Trent Bridge was an excellent innings, thoughtful and inspirational. Because of it, the match might have been won. It is cruel to make him suffer for one poor match at Lord's.

Call it third test syndrome. Third Test Ashes 2009, Hughes dropped. Third Test Ashes 2010-11, Hughes recalled. Third Test Ashes 2013, Hughes dropped. Up and down the order, in and out of the side. A whipping boy made more fragile still. The only way with Hughes is to run with it for a while. Here is your slot Mr Hughes, fill it or be damned. The selectors should stick with him long enough to be sure, one or the other. The present situation is a head screw for everyone.

Therefore, the innings played by his captain, Michael Clarke, warrants greater than the usual respect. Clarke aches for Hughes for he is a protégé of sorts. There is something of himself in the lad, another young talent out of the Western Sydney District Club who is chasing the world stage. But Clarke cannot make his runs for him and, now that he is no longer a selector, cannot ensure that he gets in the side either. It is the Australian captain's conundrum. On the one hand it is his team, on the other it is not.

On that point, it seems unlikely Clarke would have let David Warner disappear to southern Africa. But it was not for him to influence the decision. Now that he is back, in form and picked to play, where should he bat? That, apparently, is Clarke's decision. No. 6 is the choice.

Clarke's golden 2012 came from many an unpromising position. The team were three down for next to nothing more often than Bangladesh. He responded with a 300, a couple of doubles and some plain old hundreds. The scorebooks will tell you that the bloke at the other end was central to the completion of these marvellous innings. Mike Hussey at No. 6 was Clarke's godsend, his given, his death and taxes. Perhaps, the captain thinks he can lead Warner to the same waters of certainty.

All of these things and more sit heavily on the captain. Ashes defeats are numbing and lead to recrimination, both of self and the whole. Six consecutive Test defeats is the stuff of legend, the most undesirable legend. Clarke has to sleep with this stuff on his mind and when he wakes it is still there. He has to talk to the press about the problem and about unravelling it. He must justify, explain, inform and inspire. He must pat backs and kick butts. He knows that a chunk of Australia still finds itself unable to trust him. He is accused of being divisive and political. And all the while, he must find a way to smile, to make runs and to keep an eye out for fellows such as Phil Hughes.

Martin Crowe used to call the peripherals "traffic". You cannot, he would say, bat with traffic. Yesterday, Clarke proved the great Kiwi wrong. How Crowe must have loved this innings. An early scrap, an increasing presence, four singles from 96 to a hundred - no stress there - and a later flourish. It was an innings crafted by a beautifully straight bat, an elegant form and the purest timing. With him for 318 balls, three hours and forty minutes and 174 runs was his Mike Hussey of the moment, Steve Smith, who played the test match hand of his life. Smith is not an obvious choice to bat at No. 5 for Australia. He is fidgety, sometimes floppy. But he showed something substantial of his himself yesterday, something on which to build.

Clarke, of course, is an obvious choice to bat at No. 4. He needed one serious innings to convince himself of this. Of the truly great batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar, Greg Chappell and Graeme Pollock are three who were locked in at No. 4. From here you can make the play, rather than respond to it. You can go through the gears yourself while guiding others down your road. If this innings does nothing else, and god forbid that, it must ensure that Clarke is at No. 4 to stay. An order can be built around him at this time to look forward.

One day, Clarke will look back and privately evaluate his performances. The hundred he made against a rampant Andrew Flintoff at Lords in 2009 will be high on his list but it came in a losing cause. The double at Adelaide against South Africa last November was a gem but led only to a painful draw. This one, this little unbeaten baby of his, just might lead to something more startling - a win against all odds. If that were so, it would reach No. 1 in his charts.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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