The joy of twinkling Clarke
I like watching Michael Clarke bat. He is not quite the stylist in the mould of Mark Waugh and Damien Martyn, the two recent pleasure givers from Australia. His batting is not as much about touch as it is about quick hands. In that, in there is a bit of Steve Waugh in him.
But I can't take my eyes off him, when he is batting against spinners. There is something about batsmen who use their feet, and the contest between a courageous spinner and a courageous batsman is one of the great joys of cricket. It's a battle of wits as well as of skills.
Usually, cricket's central action, the act of bat meeting the ball, or the ball beating the bat, lasts only a moment. The rest is all build up. Watching the bowler galloping can be a sight, but rarely does a run-up reveal anything. But when you see a batsman spring to his feet, it heightens anticipation: you know something is about to happen. Apart from a ball hit in the air in the direction of a fielder, nowhere is the drama as drawn out. That an aggressive stroke is not inevitable only enriches the experience.
In fact, Clarke is one of those who dance down the pitch to defend. That's the way they taught you to play spin in the good old days, but there aren't too many left who do it like that. Most find comfort in the security of the crease, and use their pads as often as they can. And many - and this includes a lot of Indian batsmen - use the sweep as the percentage aggressive stroke against spin. The sweep is a hugely effective stroke, but it is among the least attractive. Clarke played a couple today, but that was perhaps to try out a variation: the sweep is not his preferred option.
I watched Clarke on his debut in Bangalore, and what a dazzler it was. Rarely have I seen anyone, much less a rookie, rough up Anil Kumble with such insouciance and relish. His footwork was both sparkling and certain, when Kumble went around the wicket to bowl the defensive line outside leg stump, Clarke jumped wide off the crease to cart it over his head. Sitting in the dressing room, Shane Warne might have felt avenged. From then on, I have tried to be near the television every time Clarke has come up against a spinner.
I was curious to see how he would deal with Graeme Swann today. By modern standards, Swann is a vanilla offie. His art contains no sleight, but plenty of old-fashioned virtues. He throws the ball up, drifts it away occasionally, and spins it back nicely. Ricky Ponting was a perfect victim yesterday. The flight drew him forward, the drift drew the bat wider from the pad, and the turn got the ball to squeeze through. In the final innings in the previous Test, Clarke had played splendidly till he overran a full ball from Swann and yorked himself. The match was in the balance still when Andrew Strauss summoned his offspinner against Clarke this morning.
The second ball he faced from Swann, Clarke had twinkled down the pitch if only to pat the ball down the pitch. Off the batsmen playing currently, only Virender Sehwag uses his feet as frequently against spin, but not in his worst nightmare would Sehwag contemplate a defensive stroke against a spinner once he has gone down the pitch. But for Clarke, the sashay is a mere extension of his footwork. It makes spinners shorten their length, and when they do, Clarke can rock back in a flash to cut or punch the ball the away.
He gave a perfect illustration of this in the 89th over today. To the fifth ball, he came down the wicket, met the ball on the bounce, and drove it with an open blade to the left side of cover. Swann dropped his length the next ball, but only slightly. It wasn't short enough for a cut, but Clarke used the depth of the crease to punch it to the extra cover boundary.
Muttiah Muralitharan is yet to dismiss him. The first time they squared off in a bilateral series, Clarke took 58 runs off Murali from 92 balls including three sixes. Now how wonderful would it have been to watch him bat in a Test match against Warne. That might have settled a few arguments.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo