Michael Clarke had no time to even pad up before fending off an opening spell of pre-Ashes jibes in his first public appearance of the summer in England.
The Australia captain had to deal with a little friendly fire too, keeping a tight defence at his first press conference after former Ashes-winning fast bowler Jason Gillespie this week served up the observation that Clarke’s tourists are a “Dad’s Army” line-up.
“I’m confident the series will be played in the right spirit. Both teams will play hard”Michael Clarke
Yorkshire’s Australian coach Gillespie, a one-time front-runner to fill the same role for England, cited the thirtysomething ages of Clarke, opener Chris Rogers and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin as an apparent concern.
Clarke had little trouble dodging that bouncer, though, or an early shot from old adversary Graeme Swann – who has questioned whether leading Test batsman Steven Smith will be able to maintain that level in English conditions.
Neither critique was of obvious discomfort to 34-year-old Clarke, at the start of his fourth Test tour of this country – where he is yet to win a series.
Australia inflicted a 5-0 whitewash defeat on England, however, the last time they met – Down Under two winters ago, a trip on which Swann was forced into retirement by a chronic elbow injury. Responding to the record-breaking off-spinner’s doubts about Smith’s likely fortunes in England, Clarke said: “I reckon Swanny’s a beauty – I always liked him; I loved playing cricket against him. I’m sure he’s probably just trying to get under the skin of a few of the players. [But] it’s not what you say; it’s what you do. We’ll find out in five Test matches’ time if Steve Smith’s good enough to have success over here.”
As for Gillespie’s worries about the collective age of the tourists, the captain does not appear to be in denial – but is unperturbed too. “Pretty true!” he said. “Jason is entitled to his opinion – join the queue. I’ve copped criticism all my career – it doesn’t bother me – and there is a long list of people who have criticised this team... (I) might just add ‘Dizzy’ to that queue of people.”
The “sledging” has started early, then, but Clarke is confident the verbals on the pitch once the series is under way with the first Investec Test in Cardiff on 8 July will not get out of hand.
That threatened to happen several times in Australia in 2013-14 – especially in Brisbane, when one exchange between Clarke and England tailender James Anderson exercised the attention of the match referee.
More than 18 months on, Clarke said: “I’m confident the series will be played in the right spirit. Both teams will play hard. I know I probably say this every series – but we respect there’s a line you can’t cross. Both teams might ‘head-butt’ that line, but I’m confident we won’t overstep the mark.”
The tourists will not be shrinking away from confrontation either. “I think that’s how we play our best,” Clarke said. “I think it’s a big part of the Australian way, but I think you also need to keep in mind there’s a line and not overstep that. As captain, I’ll make sure I lead the way on that front, and I’m sure the boys will certainly follow.”
He knows it will be deeds rather than words that decide the Ashes, though, and that the urn will not be easily retained. “I’ve played for long enough and I’m realistic enough to know that playing here is a really tough challenge,” added Clarke. “Look at our record over the last 10-15 years [here] – it’s certainly not what we’d like as an Australian team. But there’s good reasons for that... England are very tough to beat at home.
“The fact that we haven’t had much success in this country, I think that’s a real driving force and makes you really hungry.”
He is confident the personnel are right too. “We’re in a better position as a team; we’ve played a lot more cricket together and have had more success,” Clarke added. “But we’re still just as respectful about how hard it is a challenge to win over here. Whatever challenges lie ahead, we’ll stick together and find a way through them.”