February 21, 2013

Once upon a twinkle-toed debut

A little over eight years ago, a young Australian made a dream debut in Bangalore. Now he returns as captain

Cricket loves its beginnings: the first Test of a series, the first spell, the first hour. The first over, like the start of a good novel, can grab you by the collar, demanding your attention.

Steve Harmison knows that. Virender Sehwag once said he always wants to cart the first ball of every Test for four. He didn't say anything about the second or third (which he would probably cart too) but emphasised the first.

The game has a special place for first Tests. Nathan Lyon took a wicket off his first ball on debut and joined a pub trivia frat with 17 others. Bob Massie played only six Tests but nobody will forget his first. A Sabina Park veteran dragged me into the stands to show me where he had sat during Lawrence Rowe's debut 214. Then he cover-drove with his right hand and, as Rowe had done, whistled in the follow-through.

Every memorable debut has a tailor-made narrative: a sensation bursting onto the scene (see V Sehwag), a sturdy player rewarded for persistence (see MEK Hussey), a controversial selection shutting people up (see SC Ganguly). Come Friday and Moises Henriques will be watched like a hawk; anything he does can be spun into a story.

On October 6, 2004, in sunny, balmy Bangalore, 23-year-old Michael Clarke accepted his baggy green from Shane Warne. He averaged less than 40 in first-class cricket, and the selectors had copped some criticism for picking him, but there was an air of inevitability about his entry. Some of the pre-series buzz pointed to Clarke as a successor to Steve Waugh, who had retired earlier that year. As a New South Welshman who was expert against spin, the cards were falling into place.

Australia won the toss. They were motoring along at 124 for 1 before three quick wickets led to 149 for 4. Darren Lehmann's ugly heave gave Anil Kumble, Bangalore's beloved, his 399th Test wicket. The crowd roared in anticipation of No. 400. An electricity whizzed around the Chinnaswamy Stadium.

A helmeted, fidgety Clarke snuck into this commotion. He tugged at his shirt sleeves, pawed his helmet grille. Then a stationary jog, a couple of ankle bounces, a squat and a shadow-practised straight drive. More fidgety moves: swiping sweat off his forehead, a gardening of the pitch and a swift inspection of the leg-side field. Into his stance - feet on leg, bat on middle. Facing him a silly mid-off and a short leg. Behind him a squatting keeper and a crouched slip. Running in at him a charged-up great bowler.

A googly to start. Clarke, his front foot forward, played for a legbreak. The ball thudded into his front pad. As Kumble rose in appeal, the umpire signalled a no-ball. Clarke fidgeted more, then was off the mark with a quick single. He ran as if he was about to miss a train. More fidgety manoeuvres. Here was a dutiful traffic policeman in pads: ardent, alert, agile.

This was not a batsman ticking off one run after the next. He was putting on a performance. There was fleet-footed shimmying onto the back foot, punishing the ball square. The cuts and drives bore stamps of authority. When he charged down the track, he brought not just his bat but his entire emotional self: his intent, his will, his soul.

Up in the stadium's open press box, about 80 yards away from Clarke, there was another (far more insignificant) debutant, bumbling through his first live match report. I had been a regular to the Chinnaswamy Stadium since the early nineties but here was my first Test as a reporter. My notes from the match are near illegible. The bottom of one page says: "Clarke - messing with head."

Stringing clumsy sentences, I typed one paragraph after the next: first something inane about Simon Katich's fifty, then something obvious about Kumble's spells. In between, I was being distracted by Clarke's free-spirited strokeplay. All around me experienced reporters hammered on their keyboards. They were too assured, too intimidating. How does one sit amid such chaos and capture the essence of a day's play? How does one watch such a high-voltage Test and produce a coherent report?

"So much pressure," says another scrawl in my notes.

This was not a batsman ticking off one run after the next. He was putting on a performance. There was fleet-footed shimmying onto the back foot, punishing the ball square. The cuts and drives bore stamps of authority

Clarke was soaring. He swatted long hops as if he was scaring flies away. There was a crunch every time bat took on ball. Twos turned into threes. Fifty came up with a dab wide of mid-on. Then a waltz down the pitch to loft Kumble (bowling round the wicket) for a straight six. The stunned silence gave way to gasps. His first six in Test cricket. "Aww, is he a breath of fresh air!" shrieked Dean Jones in the commentary box.

Clarke finished the day on 76. He needed 32 deliveries the next morning to reach 98. Then - despite having to face Zaheer Khan - he called for his baggy green. Steve Waugh would no doubt have approved. Clarke played out seven dots and then pushed a couple to midwicket. That first hundred. He kissed his cap, kissed the Australian badge on his shirt and kissed his bat. Given a chance, he would have kissed his batting partner, Adam Gilchrist. Fist pumps and bat swishes sliced the air. The extravagant celebration was in line with the brio that laced the innings.

Those close to Clarke weren't surprised. "It was one of those things that was just meant to be," his father Les said to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Here was Australia's first debut centurion since Greg Blewett in 1995. The most stunning debut since Doug Walters, said one report. Others invoked Greg Chappell and Mark Waugh. "He lived and died with every ball," wrote the late Peter Roebuck, "and took with him on his journey his partners, team, parents, grandparents, an entire ground and doubtless a sporting nation."

Nine years on, the potential has burgeoned into full-blown splendour. Clarke is arguably the world's best batsman. He is also one of the most exciting captains. Now he embarks on one of his biggest tests: a Test series in India. Only four of his predecessors - Ian Johnson, Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry and Gilchrist - have left with series victories.

Can Clarke do what Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh couldn't? Will he ascend further into the zone of greatness? Is it, like his century in Bangalore, one of those things that are just meant to be? The next few weeks will give us some answers.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the US

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Prem on February 22, 2013, 12:32 GMT

    You forget to mention that he was one of the most hated people around the cricketing world for a long, long time. Also, whenever people mention Clarke, Katich's name will never be far behind. He's hit a purple patch right now, but we also should not forget that if you search Youtube for batsmen who got bowled while leaving the ball, he gets the most hits.

  • Chris on February 22, 2013, 9:30 GMT

    @Anindya S Basu - Only four other Aussie captain's have left India after winning a test series there.

  • Sandy on February 22, 2013, 4:58 GMT

    Magnificient article!! Clarke is indeed the best batsman in the world today. A joy to watch in full flow

  • Dummy4 on February 22, 2013, 3:52 GMT

    Sid thanks once again for this article . Can you please explain this line  Only four of his predecessors - Ian Johnson, Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry and Gilchrist - have left with series victories. Did not understand this at all

  • Pedro on February 22, 2013, 3:29 GMT

    A great article on a really good debut hundred.

  • Vaidyanathan on February 22, 2013, 3:04 GMT

    I remember watching him in the MCG on boxing day 2010, my head bursting with a massive hangover. The batters came and went. There was even a spot of rain. Aus eventually folded for 98. Very few things I remember through the hangover: 1. KP catching Watson ( I remember zooming my SLR into KP at Gully and realizing how tall he was for a batsman! Next ball the catch went to him) 2. Punter walking in hurriedly shadow batting all along. The Aussie behind me went " 5 balls, that's all I'll give him. He'll be back where he belongs - in the pavilion." 3. And then MC batting. He didn't last long obviously but I was struck, how assured he was. Movement was minimal, late and decisive. I've never watched SRT or RD play in real, maybe that's how it would look. You can feel the pedigree the way he bats. Been a fan since.

  • David on February 22, 2013, 1:22 GMT

    4 Aussie captains so far. Clarke should make it 5. Sadly, he's one of my least favourite Aussie cricketers' since the infamous 2008 series Down Under, and particularly his antics in looking for umpire confirmation of a CLEAR edge Vs. Kumble!! And, India's record in Australia: Zero Test series wins, after all of these years. WHEN, IF EVER, is this particular record going to be expunged from the record books, I ask you?!!? Similarly, with winning a Test series in South Africa: YET to be achieved!!! Best chance for the Aussies against this pathetic Indian Test side...

  • Anit on February 22, 2013, 1:18 GMT

    He is on his way to greatness as a batsman. No one can deny it. In 89 tests, he is close to 7,000 runs with 52.5 average. Not many can boast this. Plus, he is in a age bracket where batsman are most productive.

  • SRIVATSAN on February 22, 2013, 1:12 GMT

    Why do all you young writers need to insert couple of paragraphs about yourself in the column. Wasnt the article about Clarke ? Just wondering.

  • Dummy4 on February 21, 2013, 23:58 GMT

    Well written - great words. Thankyou!

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