March 30, 2015

Clarke's fairy tale

The last few weeks and days have been about being loved at last for Australia's World Cup-winning captain

Michael Clarke: an Australian to inspire; and never mind his style © Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The captains kept telling us there are no fairy tales in sport. Nonsense. Sport has a library of fairy tales that come from deeds of do or die and from the breaking of boundaries, often against the odds. AB de Villiers could not find a fairy however hard he looked in dreaded New Zealand, the land of Captain Hook as far as he was concerned. Pakistan beat him there and, more painfully than anything yet in his sporting life, the Kiwis did too. That was when he came up with his own no-fairy-tales-in-sport line. For de Villiers, Brendon McCullum was Cap'n Hook.

But McCullum did not see it like that. Only when this Peter Pan of a cricketer flew to never - that is never-ever - land did the fairies desert him. Why? No idea. But they nestled close to Michael Clarke. Perhaps they felt Clarke was more deserving of their affections. He had, after all, had a pretty dreadful summer.

Never, ever did it look as though McCullum would pull off a fairy tale at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. From the third ball of McCullum's bizarre innings it seemed almost certain that Clarke would. Whoosh went Mitchell Starc, swish went Captain Hook. Yum, yum went the crocodiles. From that moment on - the moment of the loudest roar ever heard on a cricket ground - Clarke was part of a fairy tale.

I missed his final bow. Such are the bowels of the MCG that a journey from the commentary box to the pitch is the stuff of athletic achievement. By the time I made it, Shane Watson was playing a forward-defensive. Thus, I knew nothing of the captain's demise and the redemptive nature of his farewell. At midnight I was told that the crowd stood as one to give him a send-off usually reserved for archetypes such as Allan Border and Steve Waugh.

Damn the G. Had I known, at the presentation I would have asked him how it felt to feel loved at last. Cosy, one imagines, to be wrapped up in a fairy tale. Instead, he talked about "PH" and the black armband. Clarke is much maligned for reasons that are unfathomable to those who know him well and like him. He is not perfect, but hey, show me the man who ticks every box. When he spoke at Phillip Hughes' funeral, he did so with an empathy and beauty that lifted the hearts of a grieving nation. This was no mean feat, and it was cathartic in every way.

Five days later he made a hundred in a Test in which he ripped "the other" hamstring off the bone. This might have meant the end of his career. Instead, it was sort of a beginning. Clarke, and the medics by his side, decided on surgery. This meant a minimum three months recovery time. The scar was ugly but he recovered in two. No booze, piles of healthy food, pool, track, gym, rehab. Six hours a day, every day. There was a World Cup to win.

People slagged him off. They just do. The surgery story was all about him, they said. The rehabilitation process too. They knocked him for spending the Christmas and New Year Tests commentating on Channel Nine, and mocked him for being joined to Warney's hip. The players, apparently, wanted Steven Smith to take over full-time because the attention surrounding the captain's return to fitness was clouding their own direction. Cricket Australia contemplated the change because, apparently, Clarke had become irritating in the extreme. But the only reason one could find for this was his determination to fulfil a dream. Not just his dream either. The host nation of every World Cup would love to win the thing. But still it lingered: how do we solve a problem like Michael?

He began to solve it for them. Michael was fit to play the first game on February 14 against England but the medics held him back another cautionary week. He eventually took command for the pool match against New Zealand but slipped on the Eden Park banana skin and had strong words to say about the batsmen, of which he was one. Not everyone liked that, of course.

In Perth against Afghanistan, he copped it for not having a bat. (Be assured, he would have been hammered had he taken guard ahead of Glenn Maxwell in the 38th over of the innings, with 274 already on the board.) No sweat, he made runs that counted against Sri Lanka and then beat up Scotland.

It was with these innings that he began to pull away from the critics. At the quarter-final stage, the dangerous Pakistanis were eventually put in their place. Afterwards, Clarke talked up Aaron Finch and Mitchell Johnson, two stars whose brightness had dimmed. In the semis, India were brushed aside. Finch made runs. Johnson bowled fast, mainly straight, and collared Virat Kohli.

Clarke is much maligned for reasons that are unfathomable to those who know him well and like him. He is not perfect but, hey, show me the man who ticks every box

Then, on Saturday, Clarke announced he would retire from one-day cricket after the final and got a caning for that. Australian hearts are not easily won. Mind you, nobody had a dip at Steve Waugh's valedictory tour in 2003-04. What is it about Clarke? The bling, one supposes, and the narrative. Only the trophy and a commanding personal performance would do it.

Brilliant captaincy, a sharp catch and a nice, structured innings that evolved into a free flow finally did the trick. As I say, I missed the end but there was a right 93,000-person love-in by all accounts. The World Cup was, once again, in Australian hands. Clarke's journey was suddenly appreciated.

My own view is that he timed his announcement just right. Better then than whack it into the press conference after the match. That would be a show-stealer. He was never likely to wait until dark winter nights closed in and cricket was forgotten. That is not his style.

Ah, that's it. Style. Australia has not warmed to his style. They like their sportsmen understated here and, preferably, hard-boiled. Shane Warne has got away with it because, er, because he is Shane Warne. Clarke made the mistake of being Michael Clarke. Big mistake. Huge.

You have to hand it to him. Yes, this excellent Australian team could have won the World Cup with Inspector Clouseau at the helm but Clarke gave us a remarkable example of drive, determination and ambition. He simply would not yield his position, nor his body. The result is inspirational. Indeed, it is very typical of the foundation on which Australian sport has been built.

He began the post-match media conference by saying that there are no fairy tales in sport. But there are, Michael. Your recent story is proof of that. History will regard Clarke highly. Perhaps Australia will now follow suit.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK