Bird Set to Belatedly Fly the Coop, Older and Stronger than his Piers

With the Boxing Day test match looming, the biggest event of the Australian home summer, Michael Clarke and the rest of the selectors have an important decision pending. After Peter Siddle’s nine-wicket match haul and Mitchell Starc’s five wickets during Sri Lanka’s second innings in Hobart, the two seamers and the off-spinner Nathan Lyon are the three bowlers sure to play in Melbourne.

After falling off the fitness wagon with a side strain Ben Hilfenhaus will be forced to watch from the dressing room as his team mates attempt to claim the series from the tourists 2-0. The 26-year-old Tasmanian fast bowler Jackson Bird has been included in the test squad for the MCG as cover alongside the seasoned and skiddy left-armer Mitchell Johnson.

From his cramped Sheffield Shield playing pen into the top flight, Bird should be suited to his new surroundings, whether he makes the starting eleven against Sri Lanka remains to be seen however. Under the painstakingly obvious and logically arduous confines of the Argus Review selection policy, consistent performers at state level in Australia will be rewarded with their first baggy green shaped Holy Grail. Bird has certainly earned his.

In 17 first-class appearances he has collected 87 wickets at an average of 19.72. He was last season’s leading wicket taker in his debut Sheffield Shield campaign and currently resides at the top of the table again, not so much warranting attention as screaming out for it with a gramophone.

Mitchell Johnson was the obvious selection for Australia’s final test against South Africa at the WACA. The left-armer has a stunning record at the ground, both in general and against the Proteas. He filled the position of senior bowler exceptionally well for Australia, given the circumstances and the fact he hadn’t played a test match in a year, out bowling both John Hastings and Mitchell Starc.

Regardless the Australian selectors dropped Johnson for the first match against Sri Lanka in Hobart, opting for youth over enigma in the tall left-arm quick Starc. Though Johnson could count himself a little unlucky to be the acting plug for disaster rather than first choice, Starc earned his position, helping seal Australia’s first test win of the summer against a stubborn batting lineup in the final hour.

The situation in Melbourne is complicated. Johnson’s experience may yet win him another recall. Given Starc’s occasional growing pains and inconsistencies, asking Peter Siddle, the ‘heart and soul’ of Australia’s attack, to lead two youngsters may prove a bridge too far.

On paper Johnson is the obvious choice. Difficulties arise when you consider Bird’s record of 14 wickets in two games at 12.07 at the ground. Blooding another debut seamer may seem less than appealing given the plague of injuries that led to this selection problem in the first place, though, where Bird differs from the ever expanding list of injured Australian quicks, is in his age, consistency and fitness.

The young Tasmanian is significantly older than the likes of James Pattinson and Patrick Cummins, whose bodies seemingly cannot hold up the rigours of test match fast-bowling yet. Bird has also honed his craft in the four day game and wouldn’t be bounding into a test match fresh from a T-20 tournament. His pace may not be up with some of his piers, but the coveted line and length approach from the Tasmanian could compliment Siddle’s pace and Starc’s bounce nicely.

If Bird does win his baggy green, it will be interesting to see if his simplistic yet effective approach will cause international batsmen the same problems as his Australian piers. If the premature gosling quickies from the national academy continue to fall out of the injury tree hitting every branch along the way, Jackson Bird will remain in the top flight for some time.

James Rowland

An Ancient Battle of Two Teams is Already Heating Up Courtesy of Cook and Clarke

With back-to-back Ashes series looming in 2013 it is the beginning of a new era for both England and Australia. We are waiting and the world is watching Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke. The race is on to see which captain can assemble their best team and persist with their own superlative form.

In truth it has been difficult to look at any cricket in 2012 and not watch Clarke or Cook. Both have spent more time in the middle than any other batsmen in world cricket of late. They are the leading run scorers this calendar year, they have recently been tasked with the leadership of their teams and both hail from entirely different thought processes.

In the white shorts, from the northern hemisphere home of cricket in England, Cook spent years as an apprentice in the school of Strauss. Reserved, traditional and charming on and off the field, Andrew Strauss was a great spokesman for the gentlemenly approach in the sport. Cook has taken this a step forward in his ice-cool presence with or without the bat, a hint of testosterone fuelled positivity and a freakish inability to sweat.

England's new captain Alastair Cook

In the yellow shorts, from the land down under, Clarke spent years in a joint  honours scholarship of Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting. The former preaching aggression, dynamism and an entrepreneurial instinct for victory and the latter, a working man’s rigidity, toughness, resolve and conservatism. Clarke has evolved into a dangerous fusion of the two. The Australian captain harnesses a singleminded will to win via aggression and experimentation alongside a fiercely pig-headed approach to scoring runs.

Australia's captain Michael Clarke

Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke, despite their heritage, do share some attributes. They both seem to buy the ‘daddy hundred’ theory of kicking on past three figures, they share a fresh optimism and more importantly they have both improved beyond the realms of expectation once awarded the captaincy.

Leadership can have an adverse affect on cricketers. Some players are born to excel within the ranks and others to thrive on the responsibility of inspiring their teams from the front. Flintoff’s maverick skill-set suffered immeasurably under the spotlight of the captaincy for England while Ricky Ponting’s game went from strength to strength, albeit before Australia’s dominance began to crumble. Cook and Clarke have both performed extremely well as captains.

Alastair Cook’s stats as England captain: 5 tests, 5 hundreds, 889 runs at an average of 127 with a high score of 190.

Michael Clarke’s stats as Australia captain: 18 tests, 7 hundreds, 1976 runs at an average of 68.14 as well as four double-hundreds and a high score of 329*.

Having just become the youngest player in the history of the game to score 7000 test runs Alastair Cook was hardly struggling prior to the captaincy. The greater improvement has come with Michael Clarke. Where he was a classy middle-order contributor he is now Australia’s lynchpin as Ricky Ponting or Steve Waugh before him. He is also the top run-scorer in test cricket so far this year with 1358 runs in 9 matches at an average of 104.46. Cook is close behind him however, and if the Englishman’s form continues in this series with India he could conceivably finish 2012 on top.

As far as their achievements are helping the two teams, Cook is ahead of Clarke. Scoring so many runs at the top of the order has an undeniably confidence building effect on the rest of the batting order. Whereas Clarke’s runs have come when the top order has often failed. You could argue this only makes his runs more valuable, however setting the tone is a more secure and responsible approach rather than mounting a rescue operation. Clarke should probably promote himself to number three and back himself to protect the younger men.

In any case, if Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook maintain their career and captaincy form into next year, the Ashes series will carry a fascinating sub-plot. The captains will be battling for team and individual supremacy. It will be the season of run scoring, outfoxing each other in the field and out classing each other in the press conferences.

James Rowland