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