October 1, 2008

Pup's a brand new dog

Over his four years in Test cricket Michael Clarke has reined in his youthful exuberance, sought understanding and refined his game



Clarke is almost the finished article, in terms of both maturity and technique © Getty Images

Although he bounds around like an especially cheerful buck and retains in his eyes the brightness of youth, Michael Clarke has undertaken and almost completed his maturing. Insofar as any male ever does, he has put aside daring and given productivity its due. For a time his spirit rebelled against the cramping that comes with regularity. After all, he had ridden a wave of audacity and ability, and it had taken him close to shore. His approach to cricket, and so life, had been notably adventurous. Not that he scorned method; just that, for as long as possible, he wanted it to remain his servant and not his master. His spirit had been his making, and he trusted it more than he did his mind.

And so, for a commendable but perilous period, Clarke kept faith with the game and attitudes formed in his emergence. He knew, one may surmise, that the world would eventually demand its due, that he'd be obliged to knuckle under, but could not find any reason to hasten that day's arrival. And so, recognising his only proven asset, he fought to retain his freshness.

It is not an unusual outlook among talented males. Does one among them think about insurance or pensions or mortgages or batting in sessions? The yearning for freedom is strong. The fondness for simplicity endures. It takes them time to grasp that true simplicity comes from knowledge, and that that requires examination. It is a mistake to try to stand still - for that is to deny the brain - and to ignore experience and to remain forever naïve.

No matter that something is lost along the way, Clarke was right to keep seeking understanding as he went along. Sometimes it is hard to know the best path forward. Sachin Tendulkar has been criticised for batting more carefully as the years pass. It is facile to regard a sportsman as uniquely locked in time, like a cartoon character. Contrastingly Michael Slater was blamed because he tried with increasing desperation to remain the same. Indeed he did not reach his maturity till he had put away his boots, whereupon he was able to release his best self. Till then he was undone by his own caricature.

Sportsmen must develop in the same way as everyone else - only, in public. Rather than regretting the loss of enterprise it is better to celebrate it whilst it lasts and then to find the same satisfaction in the refinements brought by exposure. Sports followers are partly to blame, for the way they cling to youth. Boys are supposed to be boys, men are supposed to be men.

As far as the wider game is concerned, Clarke's exuberance first came to attention in the Bangalore Test match played on the previous tour. Of course he had already contributed many fine innings in domestic cricket. It is not possible to play for Australia on a wing and a prayer. To the contrary, the Australians respect performance more than promise, and are prepared to choose even middle-aged cricketers provided they can take wickets or score runs. Just that youth is not obliged to prove itself 15 times before it is summoned. Clarke's footwork and range of strokes had caught the eye and so he was given his chance. Australians like quick footwork, feeling that it promotes proper shot selection and allows batsmen to get on top of the bowling - the primary aim of the activity in their opinion.

 
 
He is a fast learner. Cricket courses through his veins. From the outset he has been not so much a man playing cricket as a cricketer through and through. He does not just think the game, he feels it
 

It was an inspired choice. It was not so much that Clarke was a better batsman than Brad Hodge or other rivals, but cricketers felt he could go further. Clarke's first Test innings confirmed both his temperament and potential. Another man, creased with worry, might have been daunted by the noise of the crowds, the shimmering heat, and the sight of Indian spinners wheeling away, with fieldsmen alert for every error. Another man might have felt the pressure of his family watching in the stands and pals glued to their television sets back home. Clarke took to it with relish. Far from appearing concerned, he had the air of a fellow who had been waiting all his life for such a chance. His mind was bursting not with fear but possibility.

From the outset, Clarke used his feet to attack Anil Kumble's wily offerings. He had not come across the spinner before, or his like, and was not confident about reading his variations. Another batsman might have sat on the splice till he had taken a closer look. Uncertain of Kumble's ruses, Clarke decided that his best strategy was to get to the pitch of the ball. He was quick enough and bold enough to put his plan into practice. For his pains, Kumble was repeatedly clipped and pulled through midwicket. In a trice the sage bowler, and not the impertinent batsman, was under pressure.

Not that the assault was reckless. Indeed the control was impressive. Clarke calculated the risks and took his brains with him down the track. Of course he need a bit of luck, was plumb in front in the nineties, but few begrudged him his hundred. And everyone except his weary foes celebrated with him and his tearful family when he reached three figures. After all, he had advanced both the match and the game.

Nor was Clarke immediately overwhelmed by his performance. To the contrary he continued contributing to the cause, producing some thrilling shots when quick runs were needed before a declaration in Nagpur and taking a hatful of wickets on a Mumbai surface as flaky as an American bank. In some respects his sudden burst of wickets told a tale. In those days he was not much of a bowler. His arm was low and he did not turn the ball much, and as a result he was seldom allowed to bowl in club cricket. He could land the ball on the spot or thereabouts, and that was about it. Yet he was not scared to try his luck against great batsmen with the match in the balance. As it turned out, he was exactly the right pace for the pitch.



Bangalore 2004: not just twinkle toes, he "took his brains down the track" © Getty Images

Clarke returned from India full of joy and hope and expectation. No sooner had he arrived than he marked his first home Test match with a hundred. Hereabouts he seemed bound to secure his place in the side for the next ten years and to emerge as a captain of his country. Of course it is rarely as simple as that. Hardly any of the fine batsmen to represent Australian in the last 15 years has held his place from ages 23 to 28. Almost all of them, including Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn played a few matches in the first flush, suffered setbacks as much mental as technical, and were sent back to learn about the game in domestic cricket, before they reappeared as finished products. The surprise with Clarke was not that he lost his way for a short period but that he came back so quickly. But then he is a fast learner. Cricket courses through his veins. From the outset he has been not so much a man playing cricket as a cricketer through and through. He does not just think the game, he feels it.

Soon after the Ashes series in 2005, Clarke lost his place in the Australian side. His dismissal at Lord's foretold his downfall. A stream of buccaneering strokes sent his score rattling along, whereupon England fell on to the defensive, aiming the ball wide of the stumps with a packed cover field. It is the sort of dismal tactic often pursued when batsman are on top, and the wisest response is to ignore it. Ian Chappell once went so far as to moved the sticks a few feet towards the ball on the grounds that they ought not to be so far apart, but that sort of conduct is frowned upon in these respectable times. Determined to keep pushing the score along, Clarke tried to improvise and lost his wicket. His instincts were right but his head was too hot. He held his place till the Test against West Indiesin Hobart, where a loose stroke undid him. It was not that he had suddenly become lazy or irresolute or bad. Just that the game was teaching him a lesson. It does not like to be taken for granted.

Clarke's response, and the reaction of his confidantes, including Ricky Ponting, was crucial to his restoration. Although wounded, he did not lose heart or blame anyone except himself for his demise. Once his emotions had settled down he looked more closely at his batting and realised that errors had crept in. Previously he had been annoyed by suggestions that his technique was too imprecise for the top order. Now he examined the evidence and concluded that the critics had a point. Simply, his bat was not straight enough, and he was groping to too many wide deliveries. He needed to get back to basics.

Clarke returned to his coach and his club and worked hard in the nets. He understood that efficiency was expected from professional batsmen, and that technical faults needed to be eradicated. He learnt that tightening the defences did not mean that a batsman had to rely on them. There was no need for him to turn into a crab. It was not that he had to change his game, merely to improve it. And so he went about rebuilding his technique. Before long the blade looked as wide as the Ganges, and bowlers were nursing sore hands. Before long, his game and his mind were under control. Both had become somewhat off the cuff, temporarily as it turned out.

Clarke forced his way back into the side by weight of runs. It was not just that his method pleased or that his style caught the eye. He was a batsman of substance, a player with a well-organised game that did not allow organisation to crush spirit. In short he has found the middle ground between instinct and drill, territory whose existence he had once doubted.

Ever since, he has been a regular in the Australian side. He might bat at second wicket down, but instead is sent to the crease after Michael Hussey has worked his wonders. Clarke has learnt to put a high price on his wicket and yet also to attack with intent. His defence is solid, allowing him to settle at the crease and to embark upon his adventures at the time of his choosing. At the crease he is eager for a kill but also alert for danger. Bowlers preying upon his former impatience are wasting their time. Clarke has learned to play the game on his own terms.

 
 
Clarke has found the middle ground between instinct and drill, territory whose existence he had once doubted
 

If anything, his bowling has improved more than his batting. But then it is easier sometimes to deal with a lack of talent than an abundance of it. As a batsman he had mostly prospered and so had not needed to think. As a bowler he had been humdrum and therefore needed to use his wits to the utmost. Relying on his eyes and ears, he has turned himself into a capable left-armer with fine control and enough variation of flight to test capable opponents. If he were blessed with Shane Warne's gall, he could argue that his repertoire includes a slider, a gripper, a dipper, and various other mysteries. In fact, he is simply an accurate left-arm spinner, able to beat batsmen in the air and off the pitch.

Clarke's improvement with the ball was underlined in the contentious SCG Test match, in which contest he was not otherwise seen in his best light. Belatedly called upon to send down his tweakers, he took three wickets in the blink of an eye, thereby sending his comrades into raptures and his opponents into despair. And this time it was not a fluke. Indeed, he might have take more wickets in the series had replays been allowed.

That Clarke is now a respected figure in the Australian line-up has been confirmed by his appointment as vice-captain and by his anointment as Ponting's eventual successor. Although loyal to his captain, he has already shown a determination to lead the team by his own lights. Where the Tasmanian has been inflexible, and latterly in thrall to his senior players, Clarke has remained independent and imaginative. He has been able to take charge of the team without upsetting its momentum or throwing his weight around. His handling of Andrew Symonds' silliness was as warm, firm and sincere as his character.

Now Clarke returns to Bangalore and faces once more the leather-flingers who so singularly failed to curb him last time. He arrives not as a jaunty lad but as a man of the world, ambitious and loyal, bright and serious, and as a cricketer familiar with the torments of the game but not in thrall to them. He appears as a batsman blessed with fast feet and hands and wits, and as a man whose faith was shaken but never subdued.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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