Clarke won't temper Australia's aggression
Australia's captain Michael Clarke insists his side plays the game "extremely fairly" and has no intention of reining in the overt aggression that was central to the team's victories over England and South Africa last summer.
In a theme familiar to members of the great Australian combinations of the recent past, triumphs in the Ashes and then even more notably over the world's No. 1 team on their home territory had to compete for room in the public sphere with criticism of how Clarke's men conducted themselves on the field.
The final Test of the South Africa series in Cape Town was particularly fiery, as Clarke, James Pattinson and David Warner were all involved in confrontations with opponents in their pursuit of a win that was ultimately secured with minutes to spare. The ESPNcricinfo columnist Martin Crowe has been among the most vocal in his opposition to Australia's aggression, penning a sharply-worded piece for the Wisden Almanack that stated "too often, it becomes crudely personal. And that is when cricket's spirit and integrity are lost".
Clarke took note of Crowe's words but disagreed, stating that the team had played the game hard but fair over the past 12 months with the exception of two incidents for which he had admitted fault - an exchange with James Anderson broadcast via stump mic during the Brisbane Ashes Test and another with Dale Steyn during the final drinks break at Newlands.
"Firstly Martin Crowe's certainly entitled to his opinion, like the rest of us. I think we play our cricket hard on the field but I think as Australians we understand and respect there's a line you can't cross," Clarke told ESPNcricinfo in New York. "I made no bones about the incident in Brisbane and what I said to James Anderson wasn't appropriate, especially being over stump mic where boys and girls can hear that, and I did the same with the Dale Steyn incident.
"Sometimes when you're playing sport at the highest level, emotions come out for people to see, and I think that's a great thing about our game. But we understand there's a line you can't cross. You can go close to it, but you can't cross it. I think generally Australians play cricket extremely fairly, and play sport extremely fairly. I can tell you in my career 100 different instances like those that nobody knows about, because it's not over the stump mic, or you can't see it first-hand."
Other voices were raised in objection to the conduct of Clarke's team following the South Africa series, emanating from the Australian press. In the Courier-Mail, the senior cricket writer Robert Craddock wrote that "the sight of Michael Clarke angrily confronting umpires and Australian fieldsmen barking like dogs at batsmen left a lot of people cold and alienated from the team and its success.
"If a captain is carrying on like a saucepan whose lid has just popped off it is hardly surprising his team is running out of control. It's a shame Australia behaved so poorly because this was an epic triumph."
In the Sydney Morning Herald, David Sygall wrestled with similar disappointment. "The Australian psyche is characterised by uncompromising toughness, determination and dignity," he wrote. "Those traits must no longer be confused with boorish and bullying behaviour. After another significant win by our national cricket team, too many people are only half-celebrating. Too many people feel the team has not spoken for them."
Nevertheless, Clarke remained steadfast in his conviction that the team have conducted themselves fairly, and that CA and the ICC were invariably quick to step in with a harsh word and a sanction on the odd occasions that they did not.
"The Australian way is to play tough, non-compromising cricket on the field. I think if you speak to a lot of the other [international] players you'll find that we're very social off the field, we go out of our way to make sure we see the other team, win, lose or draw, after a game," Clarke said. "But with that we understand there's a line you can't cross and I think generally we're pretty good on that."
"The integrity of the game's crucial, we all know that as players, and certainly as captain of Australia that's a big part of my job to make sure that we always uphold the integrity of the game. With those sorts of things, when you're out of line you get pulled up by CA or the ICC anyway, so there's things in place to ensure you don't overstep that mark."
A little under two months since the conclusion of a wildly successful summer, Clarke has had time to reflect upon the team's achievements, and said he hoped they would prove to be the start of sustained excellence from the national team. Such a pattern would contrast with that of the 2006-07 side who also swept England at home, in what came to be recognised as the final hurrah of a dominant era spanning more than 20 years.
"In 2007 we had a team with a lot of experience. Five, six or seven of those players will go down as the greatest. If you picked an all-time great Australian team there could have been five of them in that team," Clarke said. "I don't think we have that calibre in our team right now individually, but we certainly have a great team and I think we've proved that to a lot of people over the last 12 months.
"The other side to that is we have a lot of improvement to do. Our greatest challenge is to not only win in Australia but also win away from home, and that's why it was so pleasing to us as a team to beat the No. 1 team in their own backyard."
Australia's next Test match assignment will be against Pakistan in the UAE in October, before home Tests against India ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
The full ESPNcricinfo interview with Michael Clarke will be aired next week.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig