Australia's troubled tour March 12, 2013

Clarke's cultural decree

Without Michael Hussey and Ricky Ponting around to set a cultural example, Michael Clarke has been moved to enforce one by decree

Largely because he was entrusted with delivering the verdict to the public, and perhaps because as a South African he remains the sort of outsider Australians are not given to trusting with their cricket team, Mickey Arthur faced plenty of early heat for the decision to suspend the "Gang of Four". By contrast, the captain Michael Clarke faced very little at all.

Shane Warne and others were exceedingly careful not to name Clarke in connection with the decision, as though hoping it had nothing to do with him. Amid all the jokes about homework, and ridicule of the Arthur and his boss, the team performance manager Pat Howard, there was even the question raised: "why isn't Michael Clarke stopping all this bull****?"

There is a quite simple answer to that. Clarke is not stopping it because he supports it. Moreover, he is not stopping it because as the captain, most talented player and most dedicated member of the team, he had a big hand in starting it. Clarke has very lofty goals for his team, and for himself. His career approach to reaching other summits has been to prepare meticulously, train feverishly and perform fanatically. Anything less is tantamount to treason.

Notions of Clarke as an old-school leader, derived from his natural flair with the bat and in setting his fields, are misplaced. He has the skills of a classical cricketer and on-field captain, but the preparatory habits and single-minded approach more commonly glimpsed in other, more forward thinking sports. His favourite sportsman of all time is not a cricketer, but rather Michael Jordan, that 20th century avatar of professionalism in all its cold calculation.

Just last week, the former Liverpool doctor and Australian touring team medical officer Peter Brukner paralleled Michael Clarke with Steven Gerrard. "They dot every I, cross every T," he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "They're super-talented, but you can see why they get to the top of their profession, because they're totally committed and do all the right things." Comparisons of Clarke with Jordan and Gerrard sit more naturally in many ways than those with Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey or Simon Katich. Clarke plays the game of the Australian trio but does it with the attitude of the duo more commonly found on American and European television screens.

Jordan, for one, was known by his brilliance but also his ruthlessness. In his recent essay on Jordan at 50, Wright Thompson discussed "the ugly side of greatness" and how it defined him almost as much as his unrivalled success. "He's a killer, in the Darwinian sense of the word," Thompson wrote. "Immediately sensing and attacking someone's weakest spot. He'd moo like a cow when the overweight general manager of the Bulls, Jerry Krause, would get onto the team bus. When the Bulls traded for the injury-prone Bill Cartwright, Jordan teased him as Medical Bill, and he once punched Will Perdue during practice. He punched Steve Kerr too, and who knows how many other people."

If falling short of Jordan's cruelty, an intolerance for those unprepared to walk his way has characterised two of the more calculating episodes of Clarke's career. Andrew Symonds was deeply admired by Ponting, but it was on Clarke's watch that the hammer first fell on the allrounder's career. The locum captain while Ponting holidayed, Clarke refused to tolerate a missed team meeting during a Top End series, and Symonds was dropped. Katich's differences with Clarke were well known, and his unwillingness to contribute much more than runs to a team in which Clarke was soon to be captain in 2011 was a likely cause of his summary removal from the contracts list.

It may be said that Clarke has a stricter record as a disciplinarian and demander of high standards than Arthur does. Ghosted columns for News Ltd, commonly the sort of task a cricketer will commit little energy to, are pored over by Clarke as though sacred texts. His often smiling visage for the public and at press conferences hides a stern face and insistent tone in meetings of import. There is nary a single member of the CA touring staff who have not been scolded verbally about maintaining the level of aptitude or preparedness that Clarke requires. His Argus review interview is believed to have been among the most strident. On-field opponents can also relate that Clarke's tongue is every bit as sharp as his footwork.

At length, Shane Watson has been on the receiving end of some of Clarke's more pointed public words. Several times last summer he noted that Australia "beat India 4-0 without Watto". In September, as Watson was flaying bowlers at the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, Clarke spoke after a Sheffield Shield game at Bankstown Oval in western Sydney, and when asked about Watson's exploits and form ahead of the summer, remarked on how Test cricket was a different game, and that his own preparation - a looming boot camp with a personal trainer - would be entirely thorough. It cannot be forgotten that Clarke achieves all that he has despite a degenerative back problem that he has not allowed to cow him anywhere near as much as Watson has fallen prey to his cantankerous core.

Clarke admires thoroughness, and despises a lack of it. His dim view of Watson's continued chasing of T20 employment despite his physical frailties and still unkept Test match promise has only grown with time. There have been suspicions too about Usman Khawaja's work-rate. Over the past year numerous others under Clarke's command have fallen short of his expectations, whether it be through turning up late for meetings or training, slipping overweight in-season, wearing the wrong team uniform, or failing to consistently fill out the team wellness forms borrowed from the All Blacks last year.

So the failure of Watson, James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson and Khawaja to carry out Arthur's instructions, in the wake of what was arguably Clarke's most humiliating loss as captain, has brought about something like the Nuclear option. He is known to have raged about the team's shortcomings and shortcuts on an ODI tour of England last year, yet Hyderabad in a Test match was many, many times worse.

A significant problem for Clarke is the fact that in losing Ponting and Hussey, he was shorn of the two best examples of the high marks he set. Clarke had learned those very marks from Ponting, and had them reinforced by Hussey. At the same time both the senior men maintained those standards while also fulfilling an older commission as team men and points of assurance and advice for younger players. Playing alongside Ponting and Hussey, a younger player would want to do the extra work, simply because of who they were.

Until Hussey's retirement brought that phase to a close, Clarke was allowed to concentrate on being captain, batsman and meticulous trainer. Now he has admitted to feeling as much a coach as a player, and this week in Chandigarh has also confirmed him as a ruthless overseer. Hussey and Ponting encouraged a strong team culture merely by example. It remains to be seen whether success can be gained from Clarke's attempt to enforce one by decree.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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