South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Cape Town, 1st day November 9, 2011

Clarke's finest innings

Michael Clarke's century at Newlands should remove any doubts about whether he is the man to lead Australia

Before Michael Clarke took over as captain, he had made 14 Test hundreds but it was hard to remember a truly great innings. He has now provided two in two Tests. If any doubts remained about whether Clarke was the man to lead Australia in the coming years, they have been expunged by his efforts in Colombo and Cape Town.

It is easy to look at Clarke and see the tattoos and the metrosexual image and choose not to see the dedication, the single-mindedness that has led him to ignore the Indian Premier League and sit out of the Champions League T20. The hard edge. Ricky Ponting had it. So did Steve Waugh. And Allan Border's toughness is the stuff of legend. Could Clarke really follow those grizzled leaders? His performance at Newlands shows that he can.

For batsmanship and leadership, this was his finest innings. At the SSC in September, Clarke came in with Sri Lanka in a position to win the match if they could run through Australia's middle and lower order. He refused to budge and scored 112, securing a drawn match and series victory on his first tour in charge. But that was on a pitch as flat as the top of Table Mountain.

Clarke's unbeaten 107 at Newlands - he can add to the total on the second morning - was a giant performance under the circumstances. Australia had been sent in on a surface that had sweated under the covers for two hours immediately before play after a shower slithered over the top of the mountain and surprised the players as they warmed up. It had also rained for most of the previous day.

These were conditions Australia knew well, from past unpleasant experiences. At Headingley last year they were made to look incompetent by Pakistan's swing bowlers and were skittled for 88 on the first day. And on Boxing Day at the MCG last year they made 98, every batsman falling to an edge behind the wicket as their techniques were exposed against quality swing bowling on another juicy surface.

It could easily have happened again here. The openers lost their wickets to edges and Ricky Ponting was trapped lbw, surprised by a delivery that didn't move in the air. Dale Steyn's outswinger that had Shane Watson caught at slip was almost unplayable, starting from middle stump and curling away, the art of a master.

It was against this backdrop that Clarke strode to the crease at 40 for 3. A captain's innings was required and it was delivered. Steyn sent a series of bouncers towards Clarke, who ducked and weaved and didn't always get out of the way. But Clarke did not intend to be cowed. A straight drive back past Steyn took him to 10, and it was a statement of intent.

"I remember Warnie [Shane Warne] saying to me years ago that the better the bowling the more positive you have to be," Clarke said at stumps. "That was my attitude today. I knew I was facing a pretty good attack in conditions that were going to do a little bit. But I thought I needed to do something to put a little bit of pressure back on them.

"On wickets like that there are no real guarantees. You can try your hardest and that's why you work hard on your technique in training, so you've got a base to be able to go back to when the ball is moving around. But you need a bit of luck as well. Today I had that. I played and missed a few balls, I hit a couple wide of the slips or over point. You've just got to have the confidence and courage to play your way."

A few loose balls from Jacques Kallis helped. Clarke moved to his half-century from 56 balls having been 3 from 20. He had a fine companion at the other end; Shaun Marsh's calm belied his Test experience and it seemed to provide comfort to his captain. Notably, Marsh had not been part of the side in Leeds or Melbourne.

But even after Marsh departed, Clarke continued to play with impunity while the rest of his team-mates were punished. Only Marsh and Mitchell Johnson made double figures. In reaching triple figures, Clarke appeared a class above his colleagues.

Ashwell Prince said in the lead-up to the game that South Africa-Australia clashes were so hard-fought that "it's not about the pretty cover drive". It was when Clarke brought up his hundred with one, a super stroke off the bowling of Kallis. It was Clarke's 108th delivery. His counterattacking plan had worked.

Great captains combine tactical nous with personal performance. Clarke is four Tests into his leadership term but already it's hard to fault him in either of those fields. If he can marshal his troops on the field like he led them with the bat, Australia might just have some hope of winning this match.

After play, he would not be drawn on whether he considered this his finest innings. That, he said, was for others to decide. Yes, Michael, it was.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • aleem on November 10, 2011, 18:15 GMT

    It was was in was bound to HAPPEN!! Clarke showed why he was first picked as a teenager and moulded inside the hard Australian circuit. His was a gem in a many lustrous innings, a class which Test cricket boasts.

    Secondly, Smith & Amla are batting beautifully in the same trying conditions. Especially Amla. He is playing ODI in a Test innings. He is goin to be the BEST of ALL.

  • david on November 10, 2011, 16:45 GMT

    a very good innings but he must thank the saffers bowling. i said yesterday in the 55 overs bowled australia in the conditions and pitch they should have been bowled out and the saffers at least 2 wickets down. and today if the aussies could get 275 it would be a winning total in hindsight my piece will be posted on todays report. just to say if the aussies tighten up with their bowling they to me can still win, but as a pom 47 was great lol. dpk

  • kan on November 10, 2011, 16:29 GMT

    wonder why Australia carry the most inconsistent bowler in the world called mitchel Johnson in the side for the last 2 years, he delivers once in 6 months! he should have been dropped 2 years back, instead he is still playing and not the youngstar Cummins, no wonder Australia is ranked 4-5

  • kan on November 10, 2011, 16:23 GMT

    Clarke is ready from all ends as captain as batsman, Australia doesn't need very old Punter in the side anymore, he is nothing but a burden, liability in the side, he is someone who would never quit on his own, have to be dragged out, he is blocking growth of Australian cricket, blocking a rising youngstar to come into the side

  • Alex on November 10, 2011, 13:19 GMT

    OhhhhMattyMatty actually has a point; for Australian and English players Ashes performances are necessary. No matter what you achieve against other teams, an Ashes test winning performance is always more important

  • Kavin on November 10, 2011, 8:32 GMT

    @ Ohmatty - We indian respect Dale Steyn because he performed in india and we had some seriosu business with him when he was bowling in india in recent tours. But Bresnan? LOL pop forget things very easily, and the way Kohli and co thrashed bresnan everywhere, i dont see him comparing with the greatness of Dale Steyn.

  • Amahl on November 10, 2011, 8:27 GMT

    People's complaints about Clarke have not been because he is the captain or because people in general don't like him. It's always been because we know he is capable of more, we know he can be the pillar of consistency and can rise up to the challenge, he has the talent for sure. For the first time in years, I've seen him do so with two sensational innings in the last two games. I can remember now why the new guy with spiky blonde hair who made a century on debut in 2004 in India became my favourite player at the time. I hope this continues.

  • Kavin on November 10, 2011, 8:25 GMT

    @ OhhhhMattyMatty - LOL your bresnnan couldn't do a thing against Kohli and co's what you expect him to do against pup? Well played pup!

  • Paul on November 10, 2011, 7:35 GMT

    Yup it was his best because he was fighting the best bowlers in the world on a wicket they were using to their advantage - very fiery spells from Morkel, Philander & Steyn. Good one Michael, lets just hope the Saffers get you and you buds out early today so we can build a considerable lead. Can't wait to see Jacques Rudolph perform again. The guy has top scored in two County seasons and has top scored in First Class South African cricket since his return. So nice to see the SA selectors picking on merit and performance for a change !

  • Rajaram on November 10, 2011, 7:21 GMT

    Michael Clarke has TRULY arrived as Captain.Will the detractors shut up and listen? Note what I have ALWEAYS been saying - his BEST batting position is Number 5 - where he has scored the Maximum runs and Centuries - where he brought himself back to in the third Test against Sri Lanka and scored a fighting Century. And now a back to back century. Even after Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey retire, I hope he will stay at No.5. Like Steve Waugh did. Usman Khaja can bat at No.4 or 6.Hopefully,George Bailey or Callum Ferguson can take the other slot.

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