Clarke perfects blueprint for the captain's innings
There's a certain Venn diagram that shows just how remarkable a cricketer Michael Clarke has become. In one circle are the men who have scored three double-centuries as Australia's Test captain. Greg Chappell is there, so is Bob Simpson. In the other circle are those who have made three double-hundreds in a calendar year. Ricky Ponting is in that one. In the middle, fitting both categories, are Don Bradman and Michael Clarke.
Clarke went to stumps on the fourth day at the Gabba unbeaten on 218. Within a matter of minutes, he was being interviewed on camera by Mark Taylor. It was an exhaustive chat, but Clarke was far from exhausted. He had been batting all day and looked like he could have kept going until midnight.
These long, lead-from-the-front innings have become Clarke's trademark over the past year. There was his 329 not out against India in Sydney, his 210 in Adelaide later in the same series, and most impressively his 151 on an early-season, seamer-friendly pitch in Cape Town last year. Not to mention 139 against New Zealand at the Gabba last year, and 112 in Sri Lanka last September.
Leaving aside Bill Brown, who led Australia in only one match, Clarke's average of 64.72 as the country's Test captain is second only to Bradman. Not surprisingly, Australia have lost only two of the 14 completed Tests they have played since Clarke took over from Ponting in a full-time capacity. Thanks to Clarke and Ed Cowan, they won't lose this one either.
"I'll say it's coincidental," Clarke said when asked if his rich form was the result of taking on the leadership. "I'm trying to improve every day ... It has been nice to be able to lead by example with the bat. I've said for a while now it's not what you say, it's what you do. Ricky certainly showed that as captain of Australia for a long period of time, that he was scoring plenty of runs and the boys followed. It's nice to be scoring some - hopefully I've got a few more left in me.
"For me it's about being fit and strong. Fitness has always been a big part of my life … being healthy and active. I guess over the last couple of years I've taken myself away from the team and done my own boot camp, for my mind as much as my fitness. There's no doubt I feel a little bit fatigued, more mentally fatigued than physically fatigued at the moment. But I think that couple of weeks away of preparation has held me in really good stead for the last couple of seasons."
Clarke had some good fortune in the earlier stages of his innings, notably with a couple of miscued pulls that somehow fell safely. But having joined Cowan at the crease at 3 for 40, he was perfectly comfortable playing his shots - cutting the short balls and driving, straight and through cover - with the kind of timing that might have had the South African bowlers second-guessing their lengths.
"One of the things Warney has taught me over the years is the better the bowling, the more positive you've got to be," Clarke said. "That was certainly my intent from the first ball I faced yesterday: I wanted to be nice and positive and play my way to try and put it back on the South African bowlers because I know they're a very good attack."
His scoring only became freer as the fourth day wore on and South Africa's fast men were worn down. He saw off the second new ball without any serious concerns. His timing only improved, and to the detriment of Cowan, who was run out while backing up as Clarke's powerful straight drive clipped the fingers of the bowler Steyn and crashed into the stumps.
Then came more runs. And more. And still more. When the day began, the bookmakers were quoting odds of 101-1 for an Australian victory. By stumps, they were offering 9-1. Clarke and Cowan had batted South Africa out of the contest. Over the past year, Clarke has rewritten the book on the perfect captain's innings. This latest chapter was a fitting inclusion.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here