Clarke leans on Ponting

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Michael Clarke & Ricky Ponting

Michael Clarke, left, is pleased to have Ricky Ponting around as he prepares to lead Australia in the final Ashes Test

Ricky Ponting will be a reassuring presence for his stand-in Michael Clarke as Australia try to put 2010 behind them in Sydney.

In the city which celebrates each New Year earlier than most of the world, and often harder, Australia begin this one with much to prove to themselves and their supporters.

No one will be under the microscope any more than Clarke, long identified as Ponting’s successor as Test captain but promoted by necessity - and at a critical time.

Australia had already slipped far from their perch at the top of the Test rankings, below England to fifth, before they began an Ashes series which stands at 2-1 to the tourists - with just the final match remaining, and starting tomorrow.

Clarke must somehow galvanise Australia’s collective spirit and harness their ability to avoid losing the Ashes outright to England on home soil for the first time since 1986/87.

Today he came through the first mandatory requirement of his new position - by putting some positive spin on the vexed situation.

“All the guys are pretty excited,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talking about what’s happened in the past month and not achieving our goals that we set ourselves in India. But it’s a new focus, a new year.

“I’m humbled and honoured to have this opportunity.”

Michael Clarke

Clarke has endured a hugely disappointing series with the bat and admitted: "My form is not as good as it has been in the past."

Clarke has mustered only 148 runs in seven innings in the series - 80 of them coming in one go - and he admitted: “I would have liked a hundred in the last four Test matches.

“My form is not as good as it has been in the past. But I love playing at this ground in front of family and friends.”

Clarke’s challenge is not only to marshal his team but, at some point, win over a public who refuse to warm to him.

He will not be wasting too much energy on the second task, though, reasoning people have to make up their own minds.

“Everybody is entitled to their opinion. I’ve had a lot of support as well ... from my family and close friends and a lot of people who love the game.”

Among them, of course, is Ponting. His anticipated non-playing presence throughout this match troubles some observers - but not Clarke, who expects to be playing under Ponting’s captaincy again soon.

“He’s been a great leader for Australia and has captained all 68 of my Test matches - and I certainly see him coming back and captaining Australia as soon as he’s fit," Clarke said.

“I spoke to Ricky openly when I found out he wasn’t going to play this Test match and actually asked how he felt about being around.

“I think you’ve already seen at training the last couple of days he’s had a chance to help all the guys.

“He’s again helping me with my batting - he consistently does that - and this has been a great chance for me to get some help.

“Ricky being around throughout this Test match is a great thing for all the players, but especially for me. I’m very comfortable (with it).”

Clarke knows Ponting will not interfere, merely assist.

England

Clarke has plenty of respect for a "very good" England team but warned the tourists: "When we're at our best we can beat them."

“Ricky’s made that very clear - that all the decisions that are made will come from the selectors firstly, but once I take that field from me," he said.

“I can run things by him, and I think it’s pretty important for the team to have him around.”

The proof, of course, will be in the outcome of a match highly likely to be won or lost - rather than drawn - now the weather forecast has improved.

Clarke is confident Australia, who will field two debutants in number three batsman Usman Khawaja and slow left-armer Michael Beer, have it in them to square the series.

But he knows Andrew Strauss’ England are more than worthy opponents.

“We’ve had a lot of support from fans throughout the whole summer," continued Clarke.

“I think the least we can do as a team is repay the public by getting out here for five days and showing a really good, fighting Australian cricket team.

“They’re a very good English cricket team in all three forms - they beat us in the Twenty20 final, beat us in the last one-day series in England and have retained the Ashes.

“They are high on confidence. They’ve got a lot of good individual players. But as we’ve seen in Perth, when we’re at our best we can beat them.

“I’m confident with the 11 players that take the field tomorrow - if we’re at our best - we’ll win the Test match.”

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