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Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 1st day

The evolution of Clarke the untouchable

The public perception of Michael Clarke has changed dramatically in his eight years as a Test cricketer

Jarrod Kimber

November 23, 2012

Comments: 12 | Text size: A | A

Michael Clarke celebrates his century, Australia v India, 1st Test, Bangalore, 2nd day, October 7, 2004
Clarke was lauded as a once-in-a-generation player early in his career, and his hundred on Test debut did little to change that perception Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
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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.

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.

DROPPED

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.

FRONT-RUNNER

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.


Michael Clarke won the toss in his first Test as captain and chose to bat on an overcast morning, Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney, 1st day, January 3, 2011
When Clarke captained Australia for the first time, he was a broken man in a battered team © Getty Images
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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.

VICE

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.

LEADER

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.


Michael Clarke plays one of several pull shots, Australia v India, 2nd Test, Sydney, 2nd day, January 4, 2012
Sydney, 2011-12: The iconic Michael Clarke innings © Getty Images
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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.

Jarrod Kimber is 50% of the Two Chucks, and the mind responsible for cricketwithballs.com

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Posted by   on (November 25, 2012, 22:39 GMT)

I too have always been a Michael Clarke fan. After the show he has put on in this calendar year, no one Australian could deny his awesomeness. Michael's tactical nouse as captain and ability to strike the ball and produce the innings he has, just goes to show how much Pup has stepped up and grown up over the past 12-24 months. However, watching his demeanour on the field, his constant encouragement of his team mates, his ability to smile, laugh and stay positive when things are not going Australia's way, just reinforces that a Pup he will always be and once-in-a-generation player he is.

Posted by I-Like-Cricket on (November 24, 2012, 1:48 GMT)

@Sam Brady. I don't recall the pitches being that flat against India. If they were I'd say the Indian's would've definitely competed against us instead of being completely blown away (especially since they were number one just before the series in Australia). Now he's scored two doubles against the best attack in the world, regardless of the state of the pitches the worlds best attack should always find a way to succeed. Australia did it with Warne/McGrath and co.

Posted by leggetinoz on (November 23, 2012, 21:22 GMT)

You can argue that these a flat pitches but he came in when the team was 3 for not much, without those double centuries we would be in big trouble in both Brisbane and Adelaide. Lets give the guy some credit.

And he should bat where ever he feels like it seems to work. No-one cared when Steve Waugh didn't bat at 3.

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 13:56 GMT)

The last two tests have been played on flat pitches, but 4 200s in one year is incredible in any conditions. And anyone who watched his 151 in South Africa last year would know better than to ask how he would respond to more difficult pitches. Oh, and the other once-in-a-generation player was Mitchell Johnson (according to Dennis Lillee). In terms of raw physical gifts, he might not have been far wrong. A left-armer who, at his best, could swing it at 150+ and bludgeon a century against a strong South African attack...

Posted by popcorn on (November 23, 2012, 10:41 GMT)

Michael Clarke is a LEGEND already! I just hope these calls for him to move up to Number 3 fall on deaf years. Why can't ex cricketers and cricket fans see the reality in front of their eyes? That Michael Clarke's BEST SCORES have come at Number 5, that he FAILED at Number 4. That Ricky Ponting's BEST SCORES came at Number 3, and not so good at Number 4? That Shane Watson - MVP, superb opening bat, - now rendered unwanted because you INSIST, he must bowl too? Why can't you leave a cricketer to do what he does BEST?

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 8:58 GMT)

He's still got 5 innings left in this year.. so 2000 runs in a year aint an uphill task for a guy like Clarke!!!! LOL

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 8:52 GMT)

I have to agree with Tim Cain. Not to take away from his 200s. These have been very flat wickets. Will be interesting to see what happens on more difficult pitches. He also didn't last long this morning. If Kallis hadnt been injured would that have made a difference yesterday? he was bowling very well. Don't get me wrong I want him to succeed but once in a generation players? You mean like the other ten or twelve amazing batsmen floating around at the moment? Southafrica has like at least 2 of those.. england has at least one.. how many once in a generation batsmen exist?

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 6:41 GMT)

Not a bad article ... thanks. I have always been a Clarke supporter as my many previous comments will show. I have several friends who I only see at Xmas / New Year ... and they have ridiculed my support for years. I look forward to their comments this year! Once again ... congrats Captain Clarke ... YOU'RE THE MAN !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 5:13 GMT)

Yep, he scored two double tons. How many other tons were scored in these same two tests? I'm still undecided.

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 5:01 GMT)

"Clarke was one of two once-in-a-generation players. " whos the other one ? can some one shed some light on that ?

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