New Zealand v Australia, 1st Test, Wellington March 16, 2010

Australia want book closed on Clarke saga

The Clarke Distraction. It sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, but the Australians want the abridged version. They are keen to skip forward to the final chapter and put behind them the drama and plot twists surrounding their vice-captain's very public break-up with his fiancée Lara Bingle.

They have three days to prepare for the first Test against New Zealand and on Tuesday trained for the first time since Michael Clarke rejoined the squad. The coach Tim Nielsen said the players would sit down during the day to discuss the best way to overcome the disruption to their preparation that the Clarke-Bingle media buzz has created.

"We'll have a chat about it all," Nielsen said. "There's no real effect. They're professional sportsmen. He's a player going through a personal issue like players tend to any day of the week. It's just that we happen to do it in a public forum, pretty much. We're all supporting him and he's comfortable where he's at. We're looking forward to getting into the cricket and getting back to what we do best.

"It's just one of the things we deal with every day. It's the hard part about living on the road. It's the hard part about living a life that's quite public. But we take that, we understand what we're doing. Our challenge today is to make sure we're all on the same page with the cricket starting on Friday and we prepare as well as we can for that game. We'll deal with the distractions and move forward."

Such has been the media frenzy surrounding the break-up in Australia that one TV network sent a reporter and cameraman on Clarke's flight from Sydney to Wellington in an attempt to get an exclusive interview. The Australian media contingent following the team has swelled significantly over the past few days and almost every question asked of players and coaches relates to Clarke.

The Australian team will be looking forward to Friday, when the focus returns to the action on the field. The New Zealand fans are certain to give Clarke a verbal barrage when he jogs on to the Basin Reserve but the fast bowler Chris Martin hopes the sledging doesn't come from any of the New Zealand players.

"He treats people he plays against with respect and that should be the way he gets treated as well," Martin said of Clarke. "That's pretty much how it works. The fans will probably have a ball but that's nothing to do with us. I know that I've stood on a few boundaries in Australia and been ripped to shreds so it's nothing new on either side of the Tasman and it's actually something that's quite humorous.

"It's very tabloid. I suppose cricket maybe in the '80s when Botham and Richards and those guys were floating around, it may have been a bit more tabloidy, but I haven't seen it since then. I think the tabloids may have even had a separate crew for Botham that followed him around, so I hope Michael doesn't have to deal with that."

Perhaps Martin forgot about a certain blond legspinner who often made headlines. Shane Warne was the classic example of a player who was able to compartmentalise his life; no matter what personal issues he had going on and regardless of how much negative press he received, Warne was always able to set those problems aside and perform on the field.

That is the challenge for Clarke over the next couple of weeks. If he steps out on Friday and bats with the class and poise that brought him 959 runs at 56.41 over the past year, some of the scrutiny will blow over with the Wellington breeze. Nielsen is confident that with the support of his team-mates, Clarke can do that.

"The players who do it the longest and are the most successful, they do it the best," Nielsen said. "That's the nature of the beast. That's why Michael has played 60 Test matches and performed so well. You've got the likes of Ponting and Katich and Hussey who have played a huge amount of Test match cricket and I'm sure they will be a huge support for him. The rest of the group will help him out as well."

But for now, there could be a few chapters of the Clarke saga yet to be written.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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