September 4, 2015

Pup and I

Sitting back and reflecting on the retirement of Michael Clarke a week or so after the Ashes, I was struck by how much our careers intertwined

Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke: deadly on their day © Getty Images

Sitting back and reflecting on the retirement of Michael Clarke a week or so after the Ashes, I was struck by how much our careers intertwined. There was a generation gap obviously, but when Michael was coming into Australian cricket we had quite a few things in common.

I played against Pup a couple of times in domestic one-day games before his Test debut and we had some exchanges to chuckle about. He got me out with his left-arm spin the first time we ever played each other, and a couple of years later I was bowling to him in Hobart when he took on Shane Watson's arm at deep point and was run out coming back for a second run.

When the time came for Michael to debut in the Australian one-day team, he was called up for a game in Adelaide, when I was rested, and made a determined contribution as we made hard work of a modest chase against England. Eighteen months later I was sitting at home with a broken finger as the touring team to India debated how to reshuffle the batting order in my absence.

We had Brad Hodge, Simon Katich and Michael all in contention for two batting spots and I was having three-way conversations with Adam Gilchrist and the chairman of selectors, Trevor Hohns, about which way we were going to go. Brad might have had the more impressive record but Michael had played well in a tour game, and I remember thinking it was a bit like me nine years ago, so that's what I said on the phone. "We've got this young guy who's potentially a future star for us, let's get him in there and give him a crack."

I'd always prefer to give a young player a chance if I thought he had something special about him, and that's what we all saw and felt about Pup. I enjoyed watching his debut hundred in Bangalore, and then was able to watch him double up at closer quarters when he made a hundred in his first Test at home, against New Zealand at the Gabba. By the end of that innings he had already shown he could be a man to play 100 Tests and average 50, which is exactly what he would go on to do.

As a batsman, Michael always looked his best when moving forward to meet the ball. We shared that in our approach to batting. I always felt that looking to get forward actually helped you play better off the back foot, because you have to push off your front foot to make a strong movement back. That sort of rhythm was evident when Michael was hot with the bat - no more so than in 2012, when he scored equally freely off front and back feet; and it was missing more recently, when he found runs harder to come by.

Perhaps the forward movement went back to our early days, when we each played a lot of indoor cricket. A few of the rules of that game had a marked effect on how you batted, like the need to get down the other end as quickly as possible. Indoor bowlers also tend to bowl pretty straight, so you can't just bash the ball into the off-side net and get an easy run.

You also can't get out lbw if you're playing a shot, so quite often you're hitting across the line of the ball, getting your front foot across the stumps a lot, and working the ball into the leg side. As a result, my first movement was forward and across my stumps. When Michael was first dropped from the Test team his run of low scores was due largely to a tendency to try to work full balls across his front pad and getting out lbw a lot. He ironed that out by the time he came back into the team in 2006, and from there he was exceptionally strong off his pads.

Another potential weakness that Pup turned into a strength was his fast hands through the ball. Early on he had a tendency to slice the ball in the air. With a low backlift and fast hands he had to learn to control his shots through the point and gully regions, and he eventually did so with a lot of success. Ultimately his journey as a batsman followed a quite classical path - chosen early and successfully - then a downturn as teams adapted to him, a period of time out of the side, and then returning as a prolific player.

Over the six years we spent together in the team, between 2006 and 2012, Michael and I worked a lot of hours on honing technique in the nets. Because of the similarities we had, we could look after each other quite nicely. Much of the time he wanted reassurance to make sure his defence was sound. His throwdown sessions looked very different to other batsmen, who played shots simply to feel comfortable, whereas Michael would be grinding away on his defensive game.

One recurring drill we worked on was a check on how his feet were moving against the faster bowlers. Rather than moving his back foot across the stumps, Michael would occasionally need to work on eradicating a movement back towards leg stump. Close observers of our net sessions would have noticed a bottle of water placed on the ground next to his back heel - the aim being to play without knocking it over.

Another focus for both of us was hitting a lot of on-drives to make sure we weren't falling too far across our stumps in playing straight deliveries, which would have had the potential to get us lbw. We'd watch each other trying to keep our front foot just to the leg side of the ball to give ourselves access to shots back down the ground. When we were playing well, we could hit the tiny gap between the umpire and the non-striker with our on-drives.

By 2011, when Michael took over as captain, his game was more or less at its peak, and the extra responsibility sat well with him. When you are given that role, nothing looms larger in your mind than to want to put your greatest possible stamp on the team and its results. One reason for this is that if there's anyone in the dressing room or outside not quite convinced about you as captain, you can gain universal respect pretty quickly by raising your game to another level. I tried to do that, Michael did likewise, and it looks as though Steven Smith will follow suit.

As my deputy, Michael had found it hard to fulfil all the roles the team wanted him to take on. Whether that was because he felt it was all down to the captain of the day, I'm not sure, but when he became leader he realised that all the things I'd wanted him to do were vitally important. He was helped as well by how the team was changing. The Argus review brought in a lot of things I'd advocated, from the captain becoming a selector to the support staff being far better resourced as a result of Pat Howard's appointment. A lot of that was missing when I was captain.

There were changes on the field too, but more similarities than some might think. Early on in my captaincy I was criticised for letting things drag on too much and not being overly creative in the field. A lot of that came about because with Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne in the attack, the approach had to be a patient one, since they were such skilful bowlers. You'd set the field, let them tie a batsman down, put pressure on him and get him out. When those guys weren't around, I was then in trouble for trying too much and not letting plans develop. But that went back to the quality and consistency of the bowling we had.

Clarke and Ponting worked on their on-drives together © Associated Press

Michael started out as a much more proactive captain on the field, trying things all the time, because he inherited a team where he was trying to figure out the best ways to help each bowler. But his best results came about when he had a consistent bowling attack behind him that could work to plans. Ryan Harris, in particular, bowled to an incredibly high standard for Michael. That brought the pressure, leading to wickets for others. Without Harris and Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson couldn't have bowled the way he did two years ago.

That much was proven this Ashes series, when a lack of consistency from the bowling attack left Pup finding it so much harder to maintain control. All of a sudden it was Alastair Cook looking like the more assured of the two captains, because his bowlers gave him licence to work on plans that led to dismissals. These included the man at point for Smithy and the short stuff directed at Michael.

One final thing I will say is that Michael's work with Nathan Lyon has been outstanding - to build him up to a point where he is now one of the best spin bowlers in the world. The number of spinners we went through during my captaincy was dizzying, but Michael was able to use Nathan to give him the best chance to contribute to the team while not exposing him to punishment. He often got him into the attack early, which isn't something I did as much.

The confidence Michael showed at a time when he didn't know Nathan well has been repaid by the way he has developed over the past four years. On that level you can't undervalue the relationship Pup has had with Warney, which has helped him gain a deep understanding of spin bowling and when to use it. Shane wanted to bowl all the time, and Michael certainly gave Nathan every opportunity to do so.

Things were different under Michael but he was a different person to me. Smithy is different again, and he's already come out and made it pretty clear that he'll lead the team in another way. It doesn't mean what I did was right or what Michael did was wrong; just that we were different. We handled people and situations differently, and that will always be the case, no matter who is captain. Now Michael has finished up, I hope he takes a moment or two to sit back and reflect on a tremendous career. He has earned the chance to do so.

One of cricket's modern greats, Ricky Ponting captained Australia in 324 matches and scored over 27,000 runs