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March 19, 2010
Not for the first time this week, Michael Clarke had cameras trained in on him for several hours, tracking his every move. On this occasion he didn't mind. These cameras cared only about where he hit the ball, not what was hiding behind the blinds of his Bondi apartment.
Test cricket is about grit, not glitz, and the only models of interest are the role models out in the middle. Any promising young batsmen looking for an example of how to block out external influences should note the way Clarke batted at the Basin Reserve, pacing his way to a century that put the focus firmly back on his cricket.
When he strode to the crease at the fall of Michael Hussey's wicket, Clarke was under pressure. Had he failed, the questions would have come thick and fast. Was he distracted? Did he come back too soon? A group of men in the crowd were dressed up as Lara Bingle and there was mild heckling, but not much and with little wit. "Where's the ring?" and "show us yer Bingle", came the drunken cries from the grass. He did much better than that; he showed them his class.
It would have been easy for Clarke to blaze away early and look for the big flashy drive to announce his return, a stroke that would have stuck it to every person who pored over the intimate details of his break-up. Instead, he defended. He watched, waited and wouldn't budge. He took 16 balls to get off the mark and at one stage had 3 runs from 36.
This was a determined Clarke, intent on reminding Australia that he is one of the best Test batsmen in the world, not just the ex of a headline-grabbing Sydney celebrity. In the lead-up to the match, he said he was still able to focus on his cricket. But the round-the-clock coverage when he was home in Sydney was hard to avoid, and he made special mention of Bingle after reaching his hundred.
"I'd be lying to say I haven't read or I haven't watched the television or the news and stuff," he said. "I've seen it. I understand that you guys have a job to do. Me being a professional athlete, it's not just about what I do on the field it's off the field as well.
"Lara has copped a lot of criticism over the last couple of weeks and it takes a very strong woman to be able to handle that. It's respect to her and it's respect to my team-mates to give me the time away I needed and then the opportunity to come back and make me feel so welcome back in the team."
He was also demonstrating that he is a responsible vice-captain, having come in at 115 for 3 and needing to steady the innings. The first sign of the fluent, attractive batting that has been a feature of Clarke's best performances came when he moved on to the back foot against Daryl Tuffey, waited for the ball on the rise and crunched a drive forward of point for a boundary. It was his 86th delivery. Just as he didn't speak to the media until he was ready, he didn't start attacking until he knew he was mentally prepared.
A lovely six chipped over long-on against Daniel Vettori followed, and there was another that cleared the sight-screen a few overs later. When his hundred arrived with a quick single that required a dive from his partner, Clarke ran a big arc around mid-on and midwicket, kissed the badge on his helmet, got a hug from North and the smile couldn't be wiped from his face.
"I probably got to a stage at about 80 where I said to Northy, I can't stop thinking about my hundred," Clarke said. "He was very supportive, he said 'mate, if you see it, just hit it'. I played some horrible shots from fifty to a hundred but I had a bit of luck. For some reason I couldn't stop thinking about it. I was happy to get there tonight, I don't think I would have slept too much if it was on 98 or 99."
There was also a long acknowledgment of the applause coming from the change-rooms. That he had the full support of Ricky Ponting and Tim Nielsen to leave the tour, sort out his issues, and return, meant a lot to Clarke.
"The support I've had from family, friends, team-mates - I've spoken to you guys about not wanting to talk about my personal life but the support I've had from Lara as well has been tremendous," Clarke said. "Without her and her support I certainly wouldn't have been back over here. To my family and friends that have supported me and Lara, I thank them very much."
Ponting spoke on match eve of the weight that was lifted off Clarke's shoulders when he faced a packed media conference in Wellington on Wednesday morning to speak for the first time since he flew home to Sydney. A well-judged hundred, which could yet turn into something far greater, will remove any remaining burden.
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