“You don’t get better from the couch.”
Such was the rationale of Australia captain Michael Clarke for why he challenged a firm directive for all members of Australia’s squad – staff as well as players – to have a full day off on Wednesday, and instead spend some of it in the nets at Newlands.
While Clarke was somewhat dismissive of criticism of his batting form in the immediate aftermath of Australia’s crushing defeat in Port Elizabeth his presence and conduct in the nets on Wednesday, in a session not flagged with the media, demonstrated he actually did take his record of not reaching 25 in his past 11 innings and nine dismissals seriously.
On Monday the captain was one of only two Australians to have played in Port Elizabeth – Alex Doolan was the other – to attend an optional training session that was intended for the five members of the squad had not played.
Clarke was seething about his dismissal in the first innings at St George’s Park, when he spooned Vernon Philander off the front foot to cover. Realising his judgement had to improve he set himself the challenge of approaching his net session in the same way – with punishment for any lapses.
“If any of you can get me out you can have my bat,” Clarke shouted to the four young net bowlers. The only caveat was that each had to set an imaginary field to him, so he knew where he could hit and where he could not.
Coach Lehmann, roped in with batting coach Michael Di Venuto from the day off, was also called to umpire by Clarke, to make sure he was complying with the fields set for him.
“Be tough on me. Anything close, I want that finger up,” Clarke demanded of Lehmann.
A footnote to the series so far has been the lack of impact with the bat from the two captains, with Clarke scoring 60 runs at an average of 20 and South Africa’s Graeme Smith scoring 37 at an average of 9.25.
For each to twice fail again in Newlands would be a significant blot in terms of the consistency achieved during their long and decorated careers. The only time in a series of at least three matches where Smith failed to reach 50 in any innings was in the 2004-05 tour of Australia. Clarke has only done so twice, both in that same season – at home to Pakistan and then away to New Zealand.
South Africa coach Russell Domingo had no inkling to critique Clarke, but was happy to laud the non-batting impact of Smith and his expectation the left-hander would respond in the series-deciding match.
“Our focus is not on Michael Clarke. It’s making sure Graeme is leading the side well,” he said.
“Graeme’s record speaks for itself. It’s very seldom that he goes through a series without making a contribution.”
“So it’s not something I’m too fazed about. He’s a quality player, his record speaks for itself and he’s playing well at the moment. He’s looking in good touch. He’s just found ways of getting out, strange-ish dismissals at the moment.”
While the 20-minute stint Clarke spent with his bat up for grabs was only a fraction of the how long he hopes to be spending in the middle in Newlands he hit the ball crisply but also responsibility.
The four net bowlers, one of whom a particularly promising right-hander, left the nets without a prized reminder of their stint bowling to Australia’s captain. They did, however, get the lingering sense that even the world’s elite players sometimes have to get back to basics before returning to their customary form.