Is Clarke up for the captaincy?
Michael Clarke is an established Test batsman with an impressive record, a successful leader of his country's Twenty20 team and the vice-captain of a Test side led by a man already in his mid-thirties and with seven years of service to furrow his brows. Long ago identified as the next captain of his country, a position altogether more prestigious and secure than in other nations, the jaunty right-hander has the cricketing world at his feet. And yet… Always with this youthful batsman there is a reservation.
Much to his frustration, Clarke is struggling to convince the hard heads of Australian cricket that he is the right man to follow Ricky Ponting. Certainly he has not been able to persuade them that he is ready to take charge in a few months should Ponting withdraw in the event of the Ashes and World Cup campaigns going awry.
Ordinarily Clarke's ascendancy would be straightforward. Not that Australian vice-captains can take anything for granted. Of late, few of them have taken over, except temporarily. Geoff Marsh, Ian Healy, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist never were promoted. But then, as a rule, they have belonged to the same generation as the captain and were regarded as replacements rather than successors. Clarke is six years younger than Ponting and so is exactly the right age. And yet…
Already the search for alternatives is underway. During the week, the name of Callum Ferguson was suddenly thrown into the pot, and never mind that he is not in the team and has not played a Shield match for a year. Previously on the same list was Cameron White, a highly regarded leader at Victoria but probably not quite good enough as a batsman. And Australian captains need to be worth their place. Behind the suggestions lie a sense that Clarke has not yet overcome the boyishness that is part of his charm but also a limitation. As one elder of the game growled recently, "Mate, is he tough enough?"
Moreover the decision will not be lightly or hurriedly made. The captaincy is not passed around but handed down, usually to a man able to lead the team for the next seven or eight years. Australia have only appointed four captains since 1984. Not a bad record for any sporting team. Age was an important factor in Ponting's appointment. Otherwise, short-term contenders might have been promoted. Once nominated, the leader is given strong backing. Australians know that captains run cricket teams and that security of tenure is important. They also understand that captains can learn whilst in office and need not be the finished product at the outset.
As it turned out, Ponting was the right choice. His main problem has been that his mistakes were small in number but large in scale and therefore have not slipped silently to the back of the mind. Ponting grew into the job. Actually he had already started maturing before his appointment. He has always been a man of his capability. Interviewing him in his teenage years, and assuming that he was a rough, tough kid from the backwaters of Launceston, as advertised, I was taken aback to hear him talk about the treatment of black people in South Africa (he had just returned from the country). "Not very good, is it?" opined the 16-year-old. In that moment the caricature was shattered. Subsequently he had a few ups and downs caused by the hot spirit long associated with youth. Eventually he called a press conference, admitted he had a drinking problem and promised to sort it out. And did.
Thereafter the incumbent impressed as a man of intent. As captain he has won two World Cups, recaptured the Ashes and held a slowly declining side together. Australia's disciplinary record and reputation have improved in the last few seasons, too, and in these last stages of his career he is emerging as an elder statesman of the game.
These comments may seem odd from a journalist who once called for his head. As JM Keynes once asked, "My opinion changes as the facts change. Does yours?" As is well known, I loathed the nationalistic hysteria on display in the infamous SCG Test - nationalism is despicable as patriotism is honourable - and thought that the captain erred grievously in not calming things down and in refusing to talk to Anil Kumble, a man of the highest integrity. Ponting's next error occurred in Nagpur, where at the critical moment he suddenly started worrying about over rates and bowling part-timers. It was a staggering way to concede the series. His other obvious howler was the omission of Nathan Hauritz at The Oval, but as it turns out the spinner himself was partly to blame.
Regardless, these episodes do not define Ponting's leadership. In terms of tactical acumen he has sometimes frustrated observers, but as a responsible leader of the national cricket team he has surpassed expectations. Bear in mind that he was not dealt as good a hand as his two immediate predecessors were. It has been his task first to keep an ageing outfit going as long as possible, and then, following its inevitable break-up, to form a new team with its own ambition. By and large he has succeeded. Australia may have slipped to fifth in the rankings - and ought not to bleat about it - but they still hold the World Cup and have never been swept aside.
Clearly Ponting completed the journey from headstrong youth with hidden depths to respected senior capable of commanding a group of peers for a long period. He was in command of them because he was in command of himself. The main question mark against his mooted successor does not concern his tactical sharpness or his batting ability. Clarke needs to convince observers that he has put aside fancies and taken charge of his life. The criticisms are not personal. Rather they stem from concern about Australian cricket. Australia are lucky that way. Past players are committed to the cause, not to themselves. In that regard England are latterly gaining ground.
Clarke's dismissals in India were held against him. In the second innings in Mohali he clipped his first ball airily to short midwicket, only to be spared as the umpire asked for a review of the bowler's front foot. Already he had been careless. Now he compounded the error, or anyhow reinforced the perception, by chatting cheerfully to India's keeper and slip as the review was undertaken. Accordingly it did not come as an entire surprise to see him take his eye off a bumper a few balls later and lift a simple catch. He departed without waiting for the decision. Doubtless it all sounds sporting. It felt lightweight. After all it was a critical moment in the match. Ponting had just departed and Ishant Sharma was in the middle or a fiery spell. Clarke's job was to resist and rebuild.
His second-innings dismissal in Bangalore seemed equally aberrant. Clarke stretched forwards and was beaten by a turning delivery. He held his position, whereupon MS Dhoni whipped off the bails and celebrated. The batsman looked back and realised he had not so much left his crease as never claimed it. It was a schoolboy error from an important batsman, one of the top 15 players around, according to the rankings.
Any player can have a bad series, particularly at the start of the season. Clarke's problem was not so much the scores as the lack of rage in his batting. His wicket was too easily taken. From batsmen of his calibre, it was barely tolerable; from a future captain it was unacceptable. He lacked conviction. Meanwhile Ponting did his utmost to hold the innings together. He was crying out for support but his deputy did not respond.
At times Clarke may be bemused that his wider life attracts so much comment, but he does not exactly hide his light under a bushel. Contrastingly Ryan Giggs flies so far below the radar that even keen followers of the game only recently discovered that his father is black. It can be done. Clarke chooses to live in the public eye and the rest follows. Partly, though, it is due to his position as the anointed captain of his country's cricket team.
Ponting had the guts to confront his weak points. Clarke needs to do the same. He needs to make himself into an Australian captain by building around his numerous strengths and correcting the flaws. He could consult past leaders like Mark Taylor, Allan Border and Steve Waugh. The captaincy is not handed over on a platter. Candidates need to fight for it, need to prove that they are the right men for the job, that it can confidently be put in their hands.
Clarke has many fine qualities. The younger players look up to him because he talks their language (about clothes, anyhow; he avoids poker). He is loyal: he rejected overtures to join the IPL because he wanted to focus all his energy on representing his country. He has a lot of sparkle and a lot of ideas as well, more than his current captain. But that is not quite enough. To my mind he is the man for the job, but a lot of respected thinkers are wary. Over the next few months Clarke needs to shed all lingering brittleness and show that he is a heavyweight and so a worthy inheritor of a great tradition.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It