November 23, 2013

The battle Clarke can win

Michael Clarke just needs to go back to the basics and trust them to overcome his issues against the short ball; he is a wonderful player and Australia should be proud of him

Everyone has weaknesses, or at least a weakness. From Don Bradman to Sachin Tendulkar, no one is immune. Weaknesses are a given, it just depends on how much you get exposed. It simply depends on the oppositions ability to exploit one. Harold Larwood found one against Bradman, the short, fast ball aimed at the rib cage. Tendulkar, too, found this line difficult. Anytime the body has to jump to counter bounce means a bit of poise is lost.

Ideally, you like to play the ball standing firm, with the back foot square as the key as it provides a solid base in which to hold your body position. However, if the bounce is winning, and you can't keep the ball down, then the option is to drop the back leg to the ground and this holds the head still as you sway and move under the ball. Of course, the attacking options, the hook or pull, or upper cut over slips, are also needed at various stages of an innings, indeed a career.

The dilemma is what to use when bounce is your enemy. And let's be honest, it's probably bounce more than any other form of attack or skill like swing, pace, seam and spin, that is the most difficult, the most threatening, and once it gets into your head can be very hard to remove.

Ricky Ponting's career started to decline when he became found out with his hook shot. That was three years from the end, and it began to slowly creep into his mental state, normally a strong suit of his. Is this now happening to Michael Clarke? No, I don't believe so. Mainly because he isn't a hooker by nature, he is more of a driver. But if he isn't careful this challenge could start to bleed into his overall game.

England, and all other test teams over many years, have struggled to contain Clarke. He is proficient against all attacks. He is unbelievable against spin. He is brilliant against pace. He is vulnerable against himself. We all are.

In the first innings against England at Brisbane he played a bad shot against a short ball from Stuart Broad. He took his eye off the ball. He got pinned in the crease. He has done this a few times recently against Broad. So it is Broad, more than anything or anyone, that has imposed himself as the exposer of Clarke's slightly open wound. Yet, Clarke is the better cricketer. While Broad is certainly maturing into a bloody good one.

What is important for Clarke is that he never stops looking to improve on what he has learnt. Gaining wisdom is hugely healthy for mind and body. It keeps you fresh. I believe Clarke is that sort of man. I believe his motivation is strong with the leadership responsibility he has, with the challenge of regaining the Ashes a major driving force. He thrives on the challenge, so it would follow that he finds new ways to keep the opposition from smelling blood.

In my humble opinion, the best way to play fast bounce is to having the mindset and the head position to stay firm. This means keeping the head in a strong two-eyed tilted position, with a desire to play straight. The moment you look for the short ball and prepare early, that is when the body and head position start to retreat. It may not be noticeable but any shift in balance backwards and you get pinned to the spot, the ball inevitably finding a cornered target. Ideally then, if the head stays firm and sees the ball early, then the body can be more easily moved either out of the way, or under the ball or in attack mode, as the body makes an efficient move to strike.

The other option is to go way back and across as Ian Chappell did. But he did this his whole life and forged a career doing it. For someone like Clarke, who is a classic driver say like Greg Chappell, well that would be too drastic. Ian Chappell's method worked for him, but not many had his ability and appetite for the short ball. He virtually encouraged it from the opposition quicks. He literally talked them into it.

Clarke needs to continue to think 'straight drive'. The straight drive mentality puts the head and body in a great position to play any shot. Again, the key is the head position. Move it early and you get stuck. Hold firm and you see all you need to see and you can move with calm efficiency.

In summary, Clarke just needs to go back to the basics and trust them. This is another way of gaining wisdom, by not getting sidetracked into looking for a band-aid for a perceived problem. By accurately going back to the basics and denying all the spin from getting to get into his head and game, he becomes a wiser and better player. The challenge becomes accepted and the result is positive.

Clarke is a true leader of the modern day. He is smart, energetic, skilful, and inspirational. He is so under appreciated by his fellow countrymen it's not funny. His tactical brain is as good as Mark Taylor's, and better than his two predecessors; Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. Too often it's a misunderstanding and a misinterpretation of a good man, a fine player. It's simply a case of operating in a completely different era. Australia will have more bad days. In the past you wondered if that would ever be the case. Back then a lot of gushing went on. These bad days get folk snapping.

Mostly, I like Clarke's equilibrium. He is modern day and old fashioned, flash and stoic, cool and emotional. He is pleasure and pain. Most importantly, he is unique and himself. No one is like him, and not enough like him when they should. He is a treasure and Australia should be damn proud of him.

At series end you will see why.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand