Stiff competition for a place in the middle order

  • Clarke was dropped after unimpressive Test series against England, Pakistan and the West Indies
  • Ashes starts on November 23 in Brisbane

    COOLUM (Australia): Michael Clarke was widely considered an Australia captain in waiting going into the last Ashes series in England.

    Now he's no certainty to make the team, with Australia desperate to win back the Ashes.

    The 25-year-old batsman will be heading to India where his Test career commenced with a flourish two years ago, planning to bat like his cricket life depends on it.

    Dream debut

    Clarke was `man of the match' on Test debut, scoring a gutsy 151 to help Australia win the series opener at Bangalore in October 2004 that put the tourist on course to break a long drought in India.

    He scored a hundred in his home debut, against New Zealand in Brisbane the following month, and shaped as a permanent fixture of Australia's middle order in the mould of Mark Waugh.

    But after less successful series against England, Pakistan and the West Indies, he was dropped from the Test eleven.

    ``I had the opportunity and I failed, and I got dropped, somebody else has come in and has performed,'' he said. ``I have to fight even harder to get a second chance. I want that second chance and I will do whatever I can to get that second chance.''

    Although he won a recall for two Tests against Bangladesh in April, he did not make the most of it and now is competing with five other highly credentialed batsmen for two or three batting places in the first Ashes Test against England starting on November 23 in Brisbane. His chances until then to prove his worth will be in next month's limited-overs series at Malaysia against India and West Indies, and the subsequent ICC Champions Trophy in India.

    ``For me, the tours are crucial, because if I don't perform there then I will have no case to put forward to be selected for the Ashes,'' he said this week when the Australian squad broke camp following a gruelling four days of boot camp-style training in the Queensland countryside.

    Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer are likely to open in the first Ashes Test, with captain Ricky Ponting at No. 3.

    But from No. 4 to No. 6 in the batting order, there'll be a lot of jockeying.

    Damien Martyn scored a match-turning century when he was recalled for the tour to South Africa in March to stake a solid claim for No. 4, leaving Clarke, Mike Hussey, Simon Katich, Brad Hodge and Phil Jaques vying for two spots if selectors don't put an all-rounder at No. 6.

    ``If you want to play at the top level, if you don't perform someone else will take your spot, it's as simple as that,'' said Clarke, whose batting average has slipped to 36 from 22 Tests, while his one-day average from 82 matches remains in the mid-40s.

    Integral part

    Clarke is an integral part of the limited-overs side, where he cut his teeth in international cricket and backs up his batting and brilliant fielding with some steady bowling.

    But it's Test cricket where he most wants to stamp his name. And for Australians, there's no more important series than the Ashes.

    ``It's one of the biggest Test series ever for every single player in this squad and I want to be part of that,'' he said.

    Re-evaluation

    Being dropped late last year helped Clarke re-evaluate his approach, giving him time out of the spotlight to concentrate on the priorities.

    ``As much as I hate to say getting dropped is a good thing because it's the worst feeling in the world when I look back now I feel it probably was the kick that I needed,'' he said.

    Clarke admitted his focus to practice had slipped, so he's back training harder than ever.

    ``I see it as the game testing me, I'm a young guy trying to get to a place in a hurry when maybe it does take time to become the best you can be,'' he said.

    ``That might mean I have to wait even longer, it might mean that I don't even get a chance to play in this Ashes series. If I am working as hard as I can, if my performances are where I want them to be, then my time will come.'' AP

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