Just when it seemed Australia had turned the corner after an abject summer's cricket in England, along came a batting implosion that will rank among the worst and most painful in its recent history. That it came in an Ashes test — a critical one at that — made it all the more difficult to stomach for captain Michael Clarke. Mentally drained and clearly stunned after seeing his team throw away eight wickets for 56 runs to lose the fourth test and the series to England, Clarke spoke from the heart. "I don't enjoy the press conferences, to be honest," he said, "you asking the same questions and me having to answer them the same way." Clarke was referring to the failures of his team's batsmen that have littered, not just this Ashes series, but most of 2013 and much of his tenure as Australia captain.
The 47 all out against South Africa in November 2011 was the low point in terms of pure numbers, but the meltdowns at Lord's last month and now here at Chester-le-Street have hit him just as hard. "I'd like our batting to be stronger," Clarke said. "Our bowlers are doing a fantastic job (but) I don't think we are making enough runs, it's as simple as that." With David Warner back in the team, Australia's batsmen shone in the drawn third test at Old Trafford, declaring their first innings at 527-7 with Clarke hitting 187 and both Chris Rogers and Steve Smith getting into the 80s. Rarely can a captain have been so positive after losing a chance to regain the urn than Clarke was in Manchester. But the same old failings have returned a few days later in County Durham. Rogers' gritty century got them out of trouble in the first innings, when only Shane Watson of the other batsmen got above 20.
And the second innings, as they chased 299 to win the match and keep alive hopes of squaring the series? Well, it became a horror show as soon as Warner edged a beauty from Tim Bresnan behind for 168-3. Those last eight wickets fell in less than two hours as Stuart Broad built up a head of steam and Australia crumbled. "I mean, obviously our middle order find different ways to get out, which is extremely disappointing," Clarke said, "but I have to pay credit to Stuart Broad. I think his performance was exceptional." Australia is now winless in eight test matches — a sorry record for a great cricketing nation — but Clarke says selectors should persevere with the current crop of players. In truth, he has few alternatives. "I think we are picking the best players — everyone says rebuild, rebuild, rebuild, but you need guys in first-class cricket making runs to take someone's slot," he said. "We have to continue to show faith in these guys.
"It takes time playing against good opposition. We just played South Africa in Australia, we are playing England here then England in Australia, then we go to South Africa. We are playing the best opposition in the world. I think the selectors are doing the best they can to pick the best sides." What will hurt Clarke even more is the knowledge that this England team was there to be beaten this summer. Ian Bell has been head and shoulders the best batsmen this series but his teammates have only performed well in spells (James Anderson at Trent Bridge, Joe Root at Lord's, Broad at Chester-le-Street). If the Australians had scored 15 more runs at Trent Bridge and held their nerve in the fourth test, it could be a different story heading to The Oval for the fifth and final test starting Aug. 21. We could be talking about Australia playing to win back the urn.
As it is, they are simply trying to save face and find any kind of morale boost for the return series Down Under. "The fifth test is as important as the first four have been — we have to play some good cricket and I think we have shown in patches that we can do that," Clarke said. "We have got the potential and the talent. If we play that brand of cricket we have shown glimpses of, I am confident we can beat any team in the world."