England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 1st day August 1, 2013

An imperfect perfect innings from Clarke

Australia have never needed Clarke's runs more than they did today. He made them by any means necessary. Not on a pedestal, but down in the mud.

There was not an eyelash out of place. His skin was flawless. The lighting was perfect. The bat was sponsorless. And Michael Clarke bathed in the adulation people save for prophets as he made 329 not out.

Each shot was assisted by balletic artistry. Each moment a perfect representation of how cricket should look. Interviews were given during the innings. He floated from end to end. India's role was little more than that of the concerned extras. A million romance writers working for a million years couldn't write a better moment of perfection.

So at Lord's, when all Clarke could do was stand still and headbutt a ball from Stuart Broad, it was clear that this wasn't the Clarke Australia wanted, needed or were promised. This was the bad Clarke. The human piñata. The invisible back complaint was stopping him saving his team.

At Old Trafford, the signs weren't good. Clarke was seen walking gingerly around the nets in the days before the Test. It didn't get better when he hit the middle.

While many were talking about the Usman Khawaja double dismissal, Clarke had snaked back up the order to No. 4. The position that had mocked him so far in his career. And when Jimmy Anderson went past him twice in the first over as he groped eagerly for the ball, it seemed the same would happen. Clarke looked so bad, that his only form of defence was spending some time in the middle of the pitch with Chris Rogers trying to ensure it was the last over of the session. He failed at that.

At his best, Clarke's back foot doesn't move. He doesn't get back and across like other batsmen. It just stays there, giving him balance and grace. Except here, it was moving. And it was moving the wrong way. It was inching back like a tailender. Clarke wasn't still and ready, he was moving and unsettled. It was a twitch.

Clarke does a lot of things; he can waft outside off, lose focus near breaks, and struggle to not go at a moving ball. But he isn't a flincher. He's not afraid of fast bowling. He doesn't back away. This is a man who averages over 50 in Test cricket. He's not a young boy finding his way. Yet, that is what he looked like. A player with talent who was worried that he would be hit.

When the ball was full, he didn't suddenly come good either. Balls were left preciously close to the stumps, or they were left off the face of the bat. He used the inside edge. The ball missed the outside edge. It was by far and away the ugliest and worst Clarke has batted since he was sainted in Sydney. It was the anti-Sydney. Nothing was perfect. Nothing was working.

Now it could have been a form thing, just a bad day, or even just having too many things on his mind. It could have also been that damned back.

A back injury is not sexy. It's not a gaping wound from your chin that the bandages can't stop the blood seeping through. It has no scars, no great slow motion shots of bones breaking, and unless you're watching someone closely, it can be hard to pick up at all. Clarke showed some signs of it. A stiff attempt to duck the short ball. Bad footwork to the seamers. And running between the wickets slightly under his best pace.

For the first 20 runs, whether Clarke's back was the problem or not, there was a problem, and could have been forgiven to hire a team of lawyers to sue anyone who showed the footage for defamation.

Had England had a leg slip for Clarke, like they did at Lord's, that would have been as far as he got. Instead Clarke changed. The short balls from the pacemen were pulled. He used his feet to Swann. Any loose ball was scored from. It was still not Clarke as perfect pictorial elegance, but it was a free scoring Clarke. His journey from 20 to 50 was off as many balls. He was in.

Clarke may average 42.76 away from home, but since his beatification, he's not travelled much. And since his beatification dismissing a set Clarke is not an easy thing. In some cases, it just doesn't happen. The only way to stop him is by putting a microphone in his face at the end of a session. Clarke was not batting like he was invincible, but like he'd been lucky to make it that far, and he wanted to not just survive, but try and damage England. He played the uppercut over the slips cordon. Hit Tim Bresnan over mid-off. And slashed at wide ones when he felt like it.

His team lost the plot and their coach in the Champions Trophy. They lost the first Test by a whisker. They lost the second by a megalodon. By just suggesting they could win a series Clarke could make a whole room laugh. Not capitalising on a good start today would have been handing the Ashes over in a far more friendly way than any sponsor could on a podium.

Rogers was in top form and more aggressive than usual as he punished England's constant overpitching. Steve Smith had more luck than Lyle Lovett. They both helped, but it was their captain who made this an Australian day.

Clarke doesn't look like a fighter, and he often doesn't bat like one. The pretty guys often have the hardest time convincing us that they are really trying. Clarke might have scratched, scraped and scragged early, but he still hit the ball through cover like it was intended to be. When he used his feet, the ESPNcricinfo commentary referred to it as "feet shimmering over the surface". If Steve Waugh had made it in his more military style, people would have rushed to call it a fighting captain's knock that took a man filled with intestinal fortitude who left his blood sweat and tears out on the ground as he dragged his side to safety. They may not have even mentioned shimmering feet.

Aesthetically, this was not perfection. But for Australia, this was a perfect imperfect innings. They have never needed Clarke's runs more than they did today. And he made them by any means necessary. Not on a pedestal, but down in the mud.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vineet on August 2, 2013, 10:52 GMT

    This is a digression. Why do English Cricket grounds look picture perfect that is the grass is very green and in big squares. Old Trafford looks picturesque. While Indian grounds look chaotic? Including crummy outfields? It the analogous to difference of the silence of the chapel and the bedlam of our(Indian) temples.

  • Jason on August 2, 2013, 9:39 GMT

    Interesting insight into the innings. It's like Border or Waugh. Naturally classy players who out of necessity built on this talent to survive at the crease when the team needed. Anyone can have the mongrel to let a bouncer hit them, etc, but without building on the talent they still won't get many runs. Nothing annoys a fast bowler more than surviving a difficult over and slashing the 6th ball for four. Will be interesting to see how Clarke's batting evolves.

  • Rahul on August 2, 2013, 9:15 GMT

    Looking back at the last 2 tests Aussies were really not as rubbish as they made out to be. In the 1st test they just fall short by few runs and yes they were hammered at the Lords. But not to forget England won the toss in those 2 test and had best of the batting condition and were always ahead of the game due to that. There were immense discussions on the Cricinfo about Ashes but I didnt see anyone discussing importance of the toss. This is the 1st time Aussies won the toss and at the moment look like putting some decent runs on the board. Now it will be interesting to see how English batsmen react to that. If Aussies manage to keep Anderson on the park for long time and to quote Englishmen "Grind him out" it will be one hell of the Ashes series still. I still believe Anderson is the difference between the two sides.

  • VENKATACHALAM on August 2, 2013, 7:13 GMT

    England seamers bowled very well today, especially Broad. Australia did exceedingly well to finish only 3 down.

  • Graham on August 2, 2013, 6:39 GMT

    Valvolux; Australia have scored 400 + against pretty much everyone lately so not sure how you can draw the bow to a weak England attack. There was several scores of 400 + against South Africa and we know how good there attack is and the reason is Clarke is a superstar and can quite easily score half of them. The rest of the batsman only have to average 25 and with the tale it is quite easy to see why Australia are capable of scoring 400 + . As for the England bowling attack there are many people in the world that believe Anderson and Swann are top 5 going around. Bresnan bowled very well on day one and was quite unlucky. Broad I do think the Aussies have better but he certainly not weak.

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2013, 4:32 GMT

    Australian will win this match by an inning and clarke will score double century today

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2013, 4:03 GMT

    Now Eveybody is saying that clarke is the best, well few weeks earlier people are saying that last 6 months of clarke ,i was expecting from his experience and class and because of lehmann he is more purified and upto the mark .i think he is in form and has to score 200 runs by himself to a grand total of 500 runs .Clarke rocks, he averages 50 plus in test.

  • Phillip on August 2, 2013, 3:48 GMT

    Y'know it was high time the Australian top order scored runs. Watson just has to go . . . dead weight I'm afraid. Also remmeber Australia need to take 20 English wickets for less runs than them to win, people have been talking up Australian batsmen to score runs, well what about the likes of Trott, Cook and Pietersen - all fine batsmen due to make scores. It's going to be a good game and there's still so much cricket left in the match, hard to say who will come out on top - it could very well go down to the last day!

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2013, 2:51 GMT

    Yes Khawaja was not out, as much as Smith was LBW, but two wrongs don't make it right. Clarke has played as one as come to expect from at present their only one world-class player and given the conditions is likely to score big later today. I hope the series isn't remembered for umpiring blunders (too many for both sides already) but at least now its a contest. If the pitch remains the same a very high scoring draw looks likely unless Australia bowl better than England have done so far.

  • Justin on August 2, 2013, 2:19 GMT

    To be fair...this english attack is highly over rated. There is 400 runs for even this weak aussie batting lineup after they see through andersons first spell. Bresnan/broad/finn arent even close to world class bowlers and swann is hit and miss. 1.5 bowlers doesnt make an attack....just the aussie batsmen are pathetic and somehow manage to collapse. Not because of the bowling, just because they are mentally weak. Pup is a class act and loves to go massive..he showed today that you can be injured and out of form and still clobber these guys. if we can get to 500 we will win this easily. If they would just pick bird for gods sakes....australia could make 400 and win by an innings. England suck batting second and suck even more when the opposition scores over 400. England cant score 400 against our attack...but we should be scoring 500 against theirs. We are a punter and huss short of being a mile better than them...wish those guys didnt let pup down and retire.