Sport Cricket Clarke, Haddin put Australia in command
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Clarke, Haddin put Australia in command

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– England with a mountain to climb

Friday was a day when almost everyone will remember where they were, and what they were doing, for reasons that made a game of cricket seem trivial. A haunting minute’s silence fell on Adelaide Oval for a man who changed the world.

The Australians will also remember this day for having schooled England in a way that would have seemed implausible just a few months ago, when they were losing 3-0 in the northern summer. How quickly the tables have turned. It is the delicious part of sport that predictions count for little, and Michael Clarke’s maligned Australia is suddenly a world-beater. Go figure.

The second day’s play began precariously poised, and Australia was a quick Clarke dismissal away from having far too few runs to boast about in the annual Festival of the Bat. Clarke almost sliced the first ball he faced, from Monty Panesar, to be caught at cover. But that ball looped away safely, and the rub of the green remained with Australia as Brad Haddin, Clarke’s chief backer with a superb 118, nicked to the ‘keeper only to be reprieved by a replay showing that debutant Ben Stokes had overstepped.

Nothing fell for England and Alastair Cook’s team would be made to rue three missed chances late on the first day. George Bailey (missed at 10) Clarke (at 18), and Haddin (5) salted England’s wounds, adding a combined 286 runs after those errors.

Clarke is a great player, bona fide, fit to stand in the upper echelon of Australia’s best batsmen through history. His 26th Test century, a sparkling 148, was characteristically bright and pleasing to the eye. Its notable points were his dancing feet, the ease of his accumulation, and the prettiness of his wagon wheel. As a bowler, there is nowhere that he cannot take you down.

He also loves Adelaide Oval, seemingly logging a ton as soon as he passes the statue of Colonel Light. The Buddhists hope to find their Nirvana as the final stage of their lives, where there are no threats and no suffering. Clarke’s personal Nirvana is out in the middle of this old ground, where he has six centuries (including two doubles) in nine Tests, and an average north of 100.  

The only surprise was when he perished, a leading-edge to mid-wicket from the bowling of the impressive Stokes. A standing ovation followed, and it is worth reflecting upon the Gabba, where Clarke flinched at a lifter from Stuart Broad in the first innings so conspicuously that when he walked out to bat in the second dig, England ceded singles to David Warner to get at the skipper. He made a hundred. Crisis over.

Haddin was the agent provocateur, goading Stokes immediately after his no-ball reprieve just after 50, and drawing a response from the feisty young man in what was the first sharp exchange of the match after the tetchiness of Brisbane. Remarkably the ‘keeper is playing the best cricket of his career at 36, little more than 18 months after he had to return from a tour of the Caribbean because his infant daughter was seriously ill, leaving Matthew Wade to take his place and hit a century soon afterward.

He returned and was one of Clarke’s best players on the tour of England, and in this series he has augmented his neat glovework with innings of 94, 58 not out, and 118 today, his fourth Test century. Another star of the winter tour, Ryan Harris, slapped an unbeaten half-century that poured on the misery for England as the total soared to 9-570 before the declaration.

It ended with Nathan Lyon turning the ball square and Mitchell Johnson reprising Dennis Lillee with his scorching heat and his moustache. The pitch had looked benign when Australia batted; now every ball was a hand grenade, and at the moment that Johnson’s skidding cutter at 150 km/h hit Cook’s off stick, you had to wonder how England can get out of this corner.

At 1-35, it needs to bat all day Saturday and most of Sunday to be remotely safe.