Clarke reshuffle has cards fall Australia's way

MICHAEL Clarke's work with smoke and mirrors was so deft that another sparse gathering of watchers at Bellerive could have sworn they saw wicketkeeper Matt Wade bowl an over of nippy medium pace, while Phil Hughes kept wicket.

This time, Clarke's artful shuffling worked. In the nick of time, Australia claimed what was in straitened circumstances a meritorious victory, its first of the summer. At least that should guarantee on Boxing Day what was conspicuously missing here, a quorum.

For the second time in three Tests - for him the second time in a row - dauntless Peter Siddle shouldered the burden of leading a threadbare attack's last-day charge at victory. This time, unlike last, he emerged bodily intact and triumphant.

The figures lied. Siddle single-handedly dislodged Sri Lanka's formidable and vastly experienced middle order and, until the death, was the only Australian wicket-taker. Mitch Starc, previously a mild performer, stepped in to sweep away the tail, rather like a relieving pitcher in baseball.

For Siddle, it was four of the best, for Starc, four of the rest. No other bowler took a wicket. No one could doubt who had shaped this victory.

All the while, another deception was at work. Perhaps unknown to him, Siddle toiled under the cloud of an allegation, never formalised, of ball tampering while taking five wickets in Sri Lanka's first innings.

Officials had to decide, after watching footage and looking at a still photo widely circulated on social media, whether Siddle had been altogether too dextrous. At stumps, the ICC announced that there would be no charge and the sun came out, which was the only fresh light shed.

This was a triumph for Siddle and, at length, for Starc, also for Clarke. As captain, he was faced with moving targets: rain breaks, obdurate batsmen - made doubly so because they were released from any obligation to play shots - and the need to manage his decimated bowling resources - made thinner still by his own inability to bowl - without over-taxing any one of them.

Adelaide would have loomed large in his alert and always laterally disposed mind. Siddle, for instance, did not bowl more than seven overs in any spell. If you were to proffer a criticism of Clarke, it would be only that he might have set more pressing fields, sooner, for at no stage this day did runs matter. He can sleep easy; beauty is as beauty does.

Yet in its reviews, Australia must beware self-delusion. Four times this summer its attack has been made to look impotent. South Africa assailed it in Brisbane on the first day of that series and again at a crucial juncture of the deciding Test in Perth.

In Adelaide, the Australian bowlers failed to bowl out South Africa in a day-and-a-half. Here, they did at length bowl out Sri Lanka, but not until after 6pm on day five.

In both latter instances, there were severely mitigating circumstances, in the form of a fallen man in the ranks. It is true also that Australia has been plagued by injuries to bowlers and its attack has not been able to settle. In Melbourne, there will be yet another conformation.

But there is another context. The Adelaide pitch remained a belter throughout, but this one was authentic day five, patterned with footmarks and cracks, liable to bounce oddly and dangerously, just what the bowl-ologist ordered. Wade, when keeping wickets, found it something of a nightmare.

Yet the Sri Lankan batsmen rarely were as troubled. Starc was unthreatening until the death and neither Shane Watson nor Nathan Lyon took a wicket. Lyon's work grew increasingly rushed and his confidence visibly dwindled. Neither in Adelaide nor here did he seize a moment meant for him. The spin question again is open.

In the first two sessions yesterday, Australia had only the admittedly handsome wickets of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara to show for its labours. Two lbw decisions against Sangakkara were overturned on referral before a third stuck, but otherwise even half chances and strangled appeals were rare. Not once did Australia feel that it had cause to take a not-out decision to the third umpire.

All hope reposed in Siddle, who, by the age-old expedient of pitching up, delivered periodically. So it was that victory would recede over a misty horizon, then reappear, then recede again; this was the rhythm. It made for a tense and tactically intricate day of Test cricket, though again it was largely lost on Hobart.

But you suspect that neither South Africa nor England, having done the hard yards, would have yielded in this ultimately meek manner. In the prelude to this series, much was made of Sri Lanka's popgun attack. For a disconcertingly long time, Australia's appreciation looked to have been made from within a glass house.

This story Clarke reshuffle has cards fall Australia's way first appeared on WA Today.