March 12, 2010

Clarke's next move the most important

By making it to New Zealand in time for the opening Test, Michael Clarke will re-affirm his credentials to be Ricky Ponting's eventual replacement

Over the weekend Michael Clarke will provide more proof that he has the attributes to be Australia's next Test captain. During the past five days Clarke has been everywhere but with his team. Instead his relationship with his fiancée Lara Bingle forced him home to Sydney, where every facial expression is being interpreted by gossip columnists and sports followers.

The liaison has been on and off more than a thigh pad according to the rumours, but what matters to Clarke and his cricket is when he gets to New Zealand. By making it there in time for next Friday's opening Test in Wellington he will re-affirm his credentials to be Ricky Ponting's eventual replacement. If a 28-year-old vice-captain can tidy up this sort of mess he can deal with anything that happens in the game.

Unless something even more damaging than a break-up occurs - his partner is a young 22 and facing the glare of a nation - Clarke will be listed at No. 5 at the Basin Reserve. "It's currently a question of when, not if, he rejoins the squad," a source close to the team said on Friday.

Cricket Australia has been supportive by giving Clarke time off during an episode few can understand. Over the two years of his engagement to Bingle, Clarke has become the team's paparazzi player, a role which can create jealousy and divisions.

With the glamorous Bingle on one arm and a firing Slazenger in the other, Clarke joined and embraced the sporting and entertainment A-list. Together they have become almost omnipresent, featuring in television, internet and magazine advertisements while launching their own drink brand. They play some cricket and do photo shoots as well.

The point of over-exposure came earlier in the month when a nude picture of Bingle, which was taken by a former boyfriend, was published. In the steam of publicity, horror, legal action and cheque-book journalism, Clarke left the squad in New Zealand to wade through the trouble with his fiancée. And then it became even more complicated.

The sole focus on the team has been lost briefly for Clarke's personal gain. Some commentators have said he can't have a high-maintenance girlfriend and captain the Test side. Former players have been surprised at him being allowed to leave the squad for a relationship matter.

Confronting the former captain Allan Border, who is so cuddly and opinion-less in his television commentary role, for time off in those circumstances would never have been contemplated. Life is different now. Partners are not handbags.

One former Test batsman has the mantra "Happy wife, happy life". Sure it's patronising to the partner, but for players who spend most of the year away from home it is necessary to develop a way of maintaining a relationship. A settled family means a less distracted cricket tourist.

Club players in new liaisons quickly learn the tensions created by spending entire Saturdays standing in a field. International cricket is riddled with broken marriages due to the dysfunctional lifestyle of regular, extended travel. Whether Clarke's goes the same way is between him and Bingle.

Calling off the engagement will not prove Clarke's suitability for captaincy, but negotiating through these difficulties will. If he becomes the side's leader he will be a chief counsellor on every tour for cricket and family matters. Whatever the outcome, this episode will help him eventually.

A publicity-hungry model - or any sort of partner - should not prevent a person from getting a job or leading the country's cricket team. Even if she flips the bird to television cameras, as Bingle did this week from the balcony of their beachfront apartment. Cricket Australia's boardroom has become less stuffy with the appointments of Mark Taylor and Matthew Hayden, but previous players have been hurt for less.

In 1956 the fast bowler Pat Crawford was prevented from travelling to England on the same boat as his pregnant wife. She had to go on another ship and he had to walk out on the team to attend the birth. By the end of the Ashes tour the marriage was over.

Shane Warne's after-hours excesses cost him the Test captaincy but in Clarke's situation he is trying to make everything neat, not worse. In cricket terms the scandal is him doing the best thing by himself and his partner, not the team or country. So far he has pulled out of a couple of one-day internationals, the game's most disposable form. The next step is the crucial one.

Two years ago Clarke arrived late to the West Indies tour, missing the first Test after Bingle's father died. He stayed back to support her and arrived for the second match to score a century. There is room in cricket for sensitivity and success. Another mature contribution in Wellington next week will allow Clarke to write off a horrible period and prove he is qualified as Ponting's successor.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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