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From TS Trudgian, Canada
I had the bitter-sweet pleasure of watching Michael Clarke bat on the fifth day of the 2009 Ashes series, at Lord’s. Australia were set what would have been a world-record run chase of 522 to win. The day’s play started with Australia 5 for 313, with Clarke and Brad Haddin unbeaten on 125 and 80, respectively. Midway through the fourth day Australia were 5 for 128 and we looked for all money to be preparing to spike our guns and pull the flag down for what had been 70-odd year fortress at Lord’s ... but now the indomitable Australian fighting spirit was coming to the fore. A mere trifling 200-odd to win, with two batsmen well set, both of whom had shown limited weakness against the relatively innocuous Lord’s wicket. But my Dad, forever the pessimist, resorted to the age-old maxim that ‘everybody is vulnerable when starting again’. And so it came to pass that Haddin was dismissed in the second over, and the paternal pessimist decided that we had best open our pre-packed lunch soon (as well as the first of our permitted four pints of beer [thank you MCC members]) as we ‘probably won’t make it that far anyway’. Lamentably, he was right. With two-dozen schoolkids behind us cheering incessantly, and thinking that every player with a hat was Andrew Strauss, Dad and I watched as Australia were dismissed before the lunch interval, entitling us to the poor-man’s consolation prize of a 20% refund.
Though Clarke batted on for only another 10 overs before missing a straight Swann’un, it was the manner of his batting which was most impressive. Two-hundred runs to make in a day with No. 8 new at the crease is not a batsman’s idea of a good time: he faces criticism for doing anything short of pulling off a Botham-esque barrage by landing on Chance a few times and managing to get out of jail, free. Clarke rotated the strike, allowed Mitchell Johnson (who, despite having a crisis of confidence and overestimating the dimensions of the pitch while bowling, is one of the better No. 8s since Lawrence Dallaglio) to get settled, left well alone the still swinging ball which was Haddin’s undoing, and with furtive, yet frequently cheerful, looks at the scoreboard, he was setting the stage for the biggest run-chase of all time. In short, he showed ‘maturity’; this is not used in the weakened, cabbage-water fashion to say that someone who was hot-headed is no slightly less so (KP Pietersen, anyone?), but to say that he has stepped into the breach, earned his spurs and become what was expected of him: a man ready to assume the leadership.
A hundred on debut and a fairytale 6-9 in his fourth Test signalled, or rather trumpeted, the arrival of MJ Clarke. His salad days were to last for a couple of years, before he was told that a stint back at Shield cricket would ‘do him the world of good’. It is out of this demotion that the focused, yet freely playing Clarke arose. Clarke has shown, not merely in Test matches, but in his stand-in stints as one-day captain, that he has a mind for the game. That he captains the side in Twenty20 cricket is, to some degree, of no real importance for this discussion, and his much-maligned ‘inability’ to change gears in between the Test and hit-and-giggle format is something to be addressed another day. Clarke has been both playing lieutenant in leadership and acting as heir presumptive for the position of No. 3.
At the moment he is able to enter (I hope!) as the ball is becoming old, the field begins to spread and spinners try an over or two. That is where I wish to spend at least one paragraph: Clarke’s footwork against spin. It was said of the batsmen in the Golden Age of cricket (Ranjitsinhji, Trumper and Hobbs in particular) that one of their defining qualities was the ability to score off both the front and the back foot, with no pre-determined preference. The advice of ‘if in doubt, push out’ is sound enough, and I was bowled by a grubber at Blenheim Palace on a wet May wicket after throwing this caution into the wind. But most of us are not good batsman (I am certainly not, as evinced by a mate’s coining the verb ‘grim-reapered’ to be used in the phrase ‘You just grimreapered the stumps’, after I had been dismissed hit-wicket following an overly lusty and ultimately one-handed pull-shot), and so the adages we need are not those for the big-game players. Clarke pushes forward, sure, and when he does he is quicker on his feet than most. He does not thunder after balls, the pitch of which he can not possible reach, but rather all front-foot shots (not necessarily to half-volleys) be played according to the length he wishes. When the ball is a trifle shorter, in the zone of indetermination (which is not so ominous sounding as ‘corridor of uncertainty’) and he is in doubt, he does not slavishly adhere to our pushing-out epithet. The right-foot goes back and to his left, the front leg straightens and the ball is hit mere inches before the stumps and driven for what might be called a late cover-drive.
Pup is due some runs again, and although his form against England was great in July 2009, he will be keen to settle the so-near, so-far innings at Lord’s. And if in say, the Sydney Test, Australia needs three wickets with two overs to spare, who better to have a trundle?
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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