February 6, 2009

Can 'Junkyard Pup' rumble as captain?

Michael Clarke, the leader in waiting, has had a second high-profile run-in with a team-mate
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Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting have both had off-field problems in their careers, but Ponting has left them behind © Getty Images
 

Before Michael Clarke was made Test vice-captain he spent more time keeping players out of trouble than getting in it. Over the past year in his seemingly predetermined elevation towards the most coveted sporting job in Australia, he has had some WWF-style moments that expose some doubts over his leadership aspirations.

Instead of acting like the man in waiting he occasionally turns into 'Junkyard Pup'. There have been two bouts over the past year, the first involving Andrew 'The Stink' Symonds in the West Indies and the second came in January after an argument over the team song with Simon 'Cut-throat' Katich. It's not what's usually meant when a senior player talks about showing some fight.

Clarke is in charge of Australia for two games against New Zealand as Ricky Ponting rests and the revelation of his scuffle with Katich in the SCG dressing room adds extra scrutiny to his previously unblemished record in seven ODI and Twenty20 matches. He giggled nervously when asked at the toss about the Katich incident.

"A month ago Simon and I did have a disagreement, but that was sorted out there and then," Clarke said. "'Kato' and I are fine. All's good." His batting at the MCG was great as he picked up 98 before leaving with a bruised body from his exertions.

As Shane Warne knows - he was one of Clarke's initial international influences - it takes more than a high winning percentage to gain the Test captaincy. And Warne was a lover, not a fighter. Ponting had to ditch his 'Mowbray Mongrel' alter-ego to become a serious leadership contender; Clarke's issues have arrived after being awarded extra responsibility.

When saving Symonds from fights with Springbok forwards and waking the allrounder by dragging him into the shower, Clarke seemed like the team-mate every side needed: a guy who would score runs and care for your after-hours wellbeing. He insists everything is still fine despite the latest events.

"Right now, the position we're in, in all forms of the game, off the field has been fantastic," Clarke said. "We've got a great group of guys around us and, apart from the performances on the field, everyone has enjoyed the time together off the field."

Three years ago Clarke was involved in an altercation with a rugby league player at a bar and now the passion occasionally erupts with a team-mate. During the Test series with South Africa he also tried to distance himself from Ponting's bowling changes in Melbourne by saying "you'll have to ask the captain". The tourists noticed times of tension between the captain and deputy, so there are subtle and stark disagreements. Australia's next couple of years are looking as tricky as a perfectly orchestrated camel clutch sleeper hold, and dependable men are required at the top.

Clarke's two opponents are intriguing choices and show that despite the rosy public outlook from the team, something has changed along with the declining record. Katich is Clarke's captain at New South Wales and if he can maintain his place will be an option as Ponting's successor. A senior player aged 33, Katich found fault in the younger man's attitude at the SCG, instead of Clarke highlighting the loss of another's focus. Symonds was such a close mate that they used to go on hunting and caravan trips together, but their relationship strained again when Clarke was in charge of sending the allrounder home from Darwin last year for his fishing excursion.

In the Katich contest Clarke was wanting to escape the team celebrations by 11pm to spend some time with his family and model fiancée Lara Bingle. Bingle wasn't there to hold the round cards that night, but there are suggestions her presence around the team is raising eyebrows in an even more distracting way than usual. Clarke said the wives and girlfriends had a big impact on the side in a positive way. "That's where the Australian team is pretty lucky," he said, "all the girls get on really well."

Problems with partners are generally exposed when the team is doing poorly and there were issues during the 2005 Ashes defeat. "We were breaking up into factions, sticking within our little sub-groups, and working at odds with each other," Adam Gilchrist wrote in his autobiography. "We weren't doing enough things together, as a team, off the field. In part, that was because some of the partners couldn't abide each other."

There were no punch-ups on that tour, but fights among sports teams are not rare - a worse one occurred in a pre-season AFL game on Friday morning. When one-off incidents threaten to become a pattern there should be serious concerns, especially when the common denominator is a 27-year-old leader. If Clarke isn't more careful he could lose his captaincy birthright and end up with a nose like Mickey Rourke's in The Wrestler.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo