The evolution of Clarke the untouchable
Michael Clarke was never supposed to be mortal. Clarke was one of two once-in-a-generation players. Big things were expected of him. He wasn't supposed to be human; he was supposed to be a legend. When he couldn't produce it, his home crowd booed him.
Clarke was supposed to be the next Ponting and a future baggy green legend. A man who was supposed to continue Australia's dominance. He was to be a working-class boy with a bit of fight and flair who would punish attacks and win matches for his country. Instead, by the 2010-11 Ashes the Aussie fans saw an unlikable player who was choked by his team-mate, dated Australia's Kardashian, apologised on Twitter, wasn't the right kind of Australian, looked upset playing the short ball, dined in trendy cafes, and worst of all, had an average average.
Some of it was unfair, some cruel, and some plain wrong, but Clarke had left his fate with one of the most fickle sporting publics on earth by simply not making the sort of runs that someone with his talent should make. Clarke was never supposed to be a normal player; he was supposed to be a legend. And when instead your massive talent only has you averaging in the mid 40s as vice-captain of a losing team, not many people rush to your side.
A mile from where he started, an inch from the Test captaincy, no one knew how he would do, and few wanted to learn. But the story of Michael Clarke is not just about an unwanted man. Clarke has been many things in his career. When he started, he was just a pup.
Unlike Ponting, Clarke had not dominated Sheffield Shield cricket. His talent was obvious if you saw him, but no one watches Shield cricket. No one. So to some it seemed like Clarke had been promoted under the New South Wales promotion system, rather than because he was ready for Test cricket. All those murmurings from Victoria and Queensland disappeared pretty quickly as this fresh-faced kid lit up Bangalore for a hundred. Even with fuzzy images on pay TV, Clarke was an instant superstar. He had Mark Waugh's grace, Neil Harvey's footwork, Michael Slater's enthusiasm and Shane Warne's style.
His first Test in Australia he made another hundred, and then added 91 in his first Test at Lord's.
Clarke wasn't the finished article. His energy was amazing, but would sometimes excite him to play a stupid shot. Ian Chappell would point out during almost every innings that Clarke would play the ball in the air at catchable heights. Clarke was an unpolished stone that could change a game in either direction for Australia. It was the raw batting you can only do when you are young and unscarred. Clarke might have come from humble beginnings, but when you saw him using his feet he looked like he had been pre-ordained to play for Australia. And he knew it.
Ex-players lined up to reinforce just how once-in-a-generation he was. The press was fascinated by him. He was essentially a puppy version of Warne. There were stories about how he liked to do his hair before getting off planes, and how much he liked sports cars. But it didn't matter, as he was the new golden boy, the player who would continue Australia's dominance and the winner of the Allan Border Medal.
Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Don Bradman, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne were all dropped at one point in their career. Someone along the line must have mentioned to Michael Clarke that he was on his way to going through his whole career without being dropped. It seemed to become his obsession. The exciting, attacking and reckless player was replaced by someone who was terrified of being dropped.
The worse he batted, the more never being dropped seemed to become an obsession. The 91 at Lord's was thrilling, but from there on Clarke seemed lost in a sea of starts. Every failure reminded him of his lofty goal, and the carefree attacker was replaced by a mere mortal who was worried about losing his spot.
This happens to players all the time. The most attacking players in domestic cricket can often become prettified shells at the top level. That isn't supposed to happen to a Hollywood superstar and keeper of the flame like Michael Clarke. With his talent and confidence he was supposed to be the gift that kept on giving to Australia.
What was amazing was how quickly he had gone from the missing link to the omitted. The ink was still drying on the articles about how Clarke would become one of the all-time greats when he was already on the outer. Australia had credibility to regain after the '05 Ashes, and anyone not performing had to be moved aside.
Clarke just couldn't perform, and with no confidence, and his own words floating around the press, he was rightfully dropped from the team.
Perhaps all Clarke needed was to be dropped and get his head right. People who have never failed often fear it the most. Once he had failed, the pressure was off, now he just had to get back into the side. Thanks to a Shane Watson injury, and there are many cricketers who can thank one of those, Clarke was brought back for the Ashes massacre of 2006-07. It was a good time to be a middle-order batsman. Clarke would come in when bowlers had been crushed, and bring up an effortless hundred.
However, when the top order did collapse, so did Clarke. All of his hundreds came in massive totals and they came when Australia were 3 for 216, 3 for 206, 3 for 241, 3 for 199 and 3 for 284. It was good batting, and he had his confidence back, but it wasn't overly important to his team.
Clarke was a changed batsman as well. Batting was always easy to him. Not always runs. His boundaries looked easy, but so did his dismissals. In losing some of this natural aggression, he'd become prone to wafting at full balls, in a way that slips fielders drool about. But mostly he'd improved. The slashes through the offside had been limited. When driving he either kept the ball on the ground, or went well over the fielders' heads. He'd done exactly what he needed to do in his fairly short hiatus, he'd evolved as a batsman.
The '06-07 Ashes cemented him in the team. Being dropped was not an issue anymore. His next move would be promotion, not demotion.
With his place secure, and his future looking bright, it was probably the point in his career when you expect Clarke to take off. To go from good batsman to legend. At times it looked possible. The Ashes '09 had two brilliant, yet fruitless innings, and in general, Clarke made runs. Even occasionally when Australia needed them. But he never quite looked right.
Clarke had lost all the public support. People no longer liked Pup as the cocky young kid, because he wasn't one. Off the field he was portrayed as an unlikable social chancer. He also became a scapegoat for an under-performing team. Plus he seemed to generally suffer for not being enough like Dougie Bollinger.
Clarke also added a new habit of going out just before major breaks in play, often when he was well set. Like never wanting to be dropped, this became something that seemed to eat at Clarke and restrict his normal instincts. Clarke sacrificed many good starts because of this batting tic. It cost Australia so many times, and seemed to affect others as they could see how much pressure Clarke was under.
He was good enough to still make runs with this problem, but he didn't make the impact he needed to as Ponting, North and Hussey all found form slumps. Too often he under-performed or frustrated.
Then his body seemed to give up. A bad back became a very bad back, and Clarke started to bat like a Claymation Mike Atherton. Against short bowling he was little more than a target.
The off-field acts, strange apologies, bad body and poor timing meant that the Australian public now actively despised Clarke. No player had been mocked more since Kim Hughes was around. Opinion polls for Australian captaincy had Cameron White as a clear favourite ahead of Clarke, despite White not being in the Test side, and not looking good enough when he was.
By the time he walked out onto the SCG for the 2010-11 Ashes, Clarke was a broken man in a battered team. The Australian crowd was not used to losing, and when Michael Clarke walked out their hatred had boiled and the local hero was booed. It wasn't the whole crowd, and there was some applause as well. But when a local hero gets booed, something has gone terribly wrong.
A few months later, Michael Clarke would be captain.
While many had given up on Clarke, those who hadn't might have hoped that the new role would help him. Make him more accountable, give him a new focus. Help him get the best out of himself. Few thought tactically he would struggle. He hadn't captained much, but when he had he looked positive and aggressive. He was very much like Shane Warne, never wanting the game to stagnate, willing to take a risk, and had that energetic glow that some captains have before a life of press conferences drains the spirit out of them.
Human relationships had never been his forte. Shield players would mock him as someone who would only talk to his agent or bat sponsor. Some players considered him a shell of a human. A cricketing Richie Rich who had never lived a real life. They whispered that he was hard to relate to, and they saw him as aloof. Few ever said he was a bad person, it just seemed that he was hard to know.
As captain, he had to change. He needed to get the trust of his bowlers. Fix a failing batting order. And deal with something that no Australian captain had ever dealt with before, having the ex-captain still there.
When Australia arrived in Sri Lanka, it was two teams in transition, and the sub-continent is not a place where Australia generally do well. This player who had been seen as a vacuous glamour hound was already a better tactical captain than Ponting. Yet it was how they played that was really amazing. In their last Test series they looked like a team that was chained to a radiator and beaten. Now they looked like a team that couldn't wait to get out and play.
It was the trip to South Africa that not only showed the new Australia, but the new Clarke. At 3 for 40 with Steyn fully flared, Philander in a groove and Morkel fully Morned on a pitch that was helping quick bowlers, Clarke became the Clarke he was always supposed to be. In scoring 151, he made more than half Australia's runs while also outscoring the South Africa and Australia combined totals in the second and third innings. It wasn't the innings of someone who was born under earth's yellow sun.
Then he backed that up at home with a hundred on a tricky Gabba pitch that essentially beat the Kiwis. These were good scores, but they weren't iconic. He was an in-form Australian captain scoring runs when they were needed. That was good, but a he had only won one of their three series under Clarke, and a draw with the Kiwis is considered a loss in Australia. It was certainly mourned like one.
Then India turned up in Sydney.
Michael Clarke had used a cleanskin bat. He was on his home ground. He made a triple-century. He smashed the Indians. He gave interviews as he jogged off the ground. And he wore the baggy green while he did it.
It was exactly what people wanted from him way back when he first arrived. It was the lack of innings like this that turned the public perception as much as any off field acts. It was what the greats do. It was pure. It was Australian. It looked great on the front pages of the papers that used to abuse him. It was very nearly double his highest previous score. It was grown-up.
It was iconic.
This new Australian team had their legend.
The last time South Africa was in Australia, Clarke was choked by Simon Katich in the SCG change-room. Much has changed since then.
Michael Clarke is now popular. Michael Clarke is now Test captain. Michael Clarke is now iconic. Michael Clarke is now untouchable.
Right now, Michael Clarke is not mortal.