A ruthless yet respectful Clarke works for Australia
In EA Sports' Cricket, the video game, every time you got Michael Clarke to hit a four you heard Mark Nicholas say, in his posh accent, "The blonde bombshell from New South Wales has arrived."
It was just a video game all right. However, it was also a time when Clarke was only just establishing himself as a batsman in the national side, but had been earmarked as the next Australia captain. Nicholas, meanwhile, was gradually becoming the Richie Benaud of Channel Nine. And it just didn't sound right.
Blonde bombshells didn't captain Australia. That image kept taking a further battering whenever Clarke failed to produce an innings of substance when Australia began failing, whenever he suggested he wasn't comfortable in captaining Ricky Ponting out of respect, when he went to Twitter to apologise for not walking, or when his personal issues got the better of his cricket.
All that wouldn't matter, of course, if we didn't think it was coming all too easy for him. His runs seemed to be coming at 3 for 300 rather than at 3 for 80. We wondered if his position as the future Australia captain had been revisited at all. If all that was needed for him to become Australia captain was Ponting's retirement. If this image-conscious, media-savvy good-looking batsman whose ugly fighting trenches were hard to recount would actually be the man to take Australia forward.
Captaincy, though, didn't come easy to Clarke. Or not at an easy time, at any rate. Australian cricket was going through a tough phase having just lost the Ashes at home for the first time in 24 years, Clarke's own place in the batting line-up didn't look that secure, and the initiation was to be a tough one. There would be the 47 all out at Newlands, there would be their first defeat to New Zealand at home in 26 years, he would be leading Ponting, and the team would be in transition.
Clarke has surprised even the most cynical of cynics. That he has become the first captain in the history of the game to score a triple and double-century in the same series is not all of it. He has brought freshness to the captaincy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he has out-captained the pants off his opposition numbers. He seems to know his bowlers better, and the fields they need. Nathan Lyon has bowled with better fields than R Aswhin in this series. His bowling changes have worked so regularly that it has become scary to shake his hand lest you turn into gold. Admittedly he likes to contain with the tail, like other modern captains, but he doesn't do so by rote.
Clarke hasn't let things go stale on the field. He is forever trying to do something. He has not waited for things to happen. If his fast bowlers - the plan A - haven't delivered for a while, he has been quick to shake things up by bringing Michael Hussey or himself on. In Sydney he got rid of Sachin Tendulkar, when he was close to getting the 100th hundred. The shrewdness that you saw in his bowling when he wasn't the captain has accompanied Clarke the captain too.
Then there has been his batting, which has blossomed with the captaincy. It began with the century in Cape Town when everybody else struggled to score. The triple and the double here have come from 3 for 37 and 3 for 84 respectively. As captain in 12 Tests - the 12th yet unfinished - he has scored 1157 runs at 62.57. Clearly he is relishing the role.
Clarke the captain has been his own man too. Not for him is mental disintegration off the field. He has been ruthless but respectful. Not in any of the press conferences has he said that beating India has been easy, although it has looked so. There haven't been any boasts, which might put pressure on his side or bring closer scrutiny. He doesn't want his team to deviate off the goal of winning every Test match.
You could see in Clarke's press conference that Brad Haddin's comments about India turning on each other easily wasn't something that he condoned. He might have his own views of the opposition, which may or may not concur with Haddin's, but it is unlikely in a year's time that you will see an Australia cricketer make comments in public that could wake up an opposition already sleepwalking through the series.
All through the series Clarke has spoken about his need for earning respect, which suggests he has been conscious that there might have been lack of it among the common man following Australian cricket. A columnist who called him a tosser in 2009-10 wrote after Sydney how he had been forced to re-evaluate his judgement of Clarke's. The respect seems to be coming now, although this is still early days. Most of the modern captains bring a certain freshness when new to the job - MS Dhoni did too - but the endless cricket consumes them. It will be interesting to see how long Clarke manages to retain that freshness.
What is, in an ironical sort of way, more commendable is that Clarke has managed the results without changing his ways drastically. He takes overthrows off his bat, but belatedly apologises and asks if those extra runs can be struck off, reminiscent of the non-walking and Twitter apology. Minutes ago he gave his new bat sponsors proper air time in a press conference, although in response to a direct question about his bat. All that won't matter, though, as long as he is making the tough runs, making the right changes, setting the right fields, and winning Tests for Australia.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo