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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Roo on March 14, 2013, 3:16 GMT

    The whole article is a joke - there are 5 selectors + Dovey, Howard & Sutherland involved in the team management & you may as well throw in the medical team as well - seeing how some of the players couldn't be bothered to keep them informed of their current physical condition...

    Add to that is that under Clarke the team has looked happier on the field with Clarke often laughing & smiling - that would be a rare event for Ponting, Waugh, Taylor over their whole careers...

  • Alex on March 14, 2013, 1:30 GMT

    Oh dear. He's a perfectionist, constantly looking down his nose at other people. West Indies didn't mostly do very well under Brian Lara, despite having some excellent players - some great players - and plenty of people thought he was just too 'above it all' to be the right captain. Tendulkar never really captained India, Warne never got the Australia job. Pietersen's captaincy career was short and sweet. You can possibly be *too good* a player to be captain, methinks - other players will never live up to your expectations of yourself. Especially when you are in the middle of a sensational run-streak, and they are mostly flatlining.

  • Brad on March 13, 2013, 21:39 GMT

    That is not a great leadership skill. Leadership involves inspiring and motivating others, and not forcing them. It is evident that the four players took Clarke and the Coach easy. That itself shows where Mr.Clarke lost the trick. One can be anything, but leadership is a different ball game all together. Look and learn from players such as Dhoni, Fleming, Ganguly & Steve Waugh. Or even from Warne, who is a very unbalanced person, but look at the way he united Rajasthan Royals and brought the best out of them in 2008. That is leadership for you Mr. Clarke!!

  • sudhir on March 13, 2013, 14:08 GMT

    I don't think anyone has a problem with striving for more discipline, professionalism. The problem is with the timing. Should you be drawing lines in sand while actively sinking in quicksand? Should you be going "nuclear" while being in the midst of a very difficult tour that too with an inexperienced side? Time will tell if this approach will be beneficial. I personally think he is a control freak and unsuited as captain.

  • Vinod on March 13, 2013, 13:47 GMT

    hope michael clarke wont lose the trust of his team mates with this unfortunate episode. i wish shane, pattinson and others return to the scene as soon as possible. a young and healthy aussie team is indispensable for the cricket fraternity. we have already gone thru the pains about the decline of windies team since 90s. great to see them coming back slowly but surely. we have only 10 teams playing test cricket with Ireland yet to.

  • Trevor on March 13, 2013, 11:46 GMT

    Australian cricket is caught between a rock and a hard place. Clarke is a supremely gifted batsman and a very good captain on the field. Off the field he is an immature, vindictive and vengeful individual. He's created segregation within the team and plays favourites with certain players that bend to his will. If he were a Kim Hughes type cricketer, barely averaging 40, then it would be easy to send him packing but he's not, he's had one of the all time great calendar years and is the world's best batsman right now, shading Amla in that regard. We simply cannot afford to lose him otherwise our team becomes something that state/county teams would have a great chance at beating. If Australia picked its absolute best XI then we'd have a top four team, with Hussey it would have had a very good chance of beating England. But this isn't the case and this lot will do well to avoid a 5-0 thrashing once they hit English shores.

  • Harsh on March 13, 2013, 11:39 GMT

    He's courting mutiny, it seems. Disciplined can be infused without being so overtly officious.

  • Mariam on March 13, 2013, 11:16 GMT

    @SunilBatra you are on the mark with your comments, i agree completely.

  • Dummy4 on March 13, 2013, 11:05 GMT

    What I infer from the article is that under Michael's and Mick's watch things are very regimental and there is not much fun in playing for Australia at present. Employees are most productive when they are happy in their wokl place and the boss is flexible and reasonable.