Warne soothes Clarke's worry
Michael Clarke is a worrier. Sometimes about things he should be worried about, sometimes not.
His unfailingly, even deliberately sunny public persona can be seen as one of the most pointed manifestations of that worry, about what people may think if Clarke does not project the right image nor deliver the right sound bite. At the moment the Port Elizabeth Test was lost by Australia, the camera panned to Clarke in a moment he could not prepare for, at a juncture where he was not wearing his public face. Its expression was memorable, conveying considerable shock and, yes, worry.
Over the past nine months, as Clarke's team has grown from a chaotic ensemble floundering in the search for direction and resolution to a cohesive, successful and Ashes-holding side, his worries have been few. But at St George's Park a pair of lingering issues compounded with a new one to create fertile circumstances for defeat. Clarke's recent lack of runs was compounded by a batting line-up that failed collectively, and a bowling attack that for once failed to adapt or succeed. The worry was back.
So it was fortuitous that Clarke would arrive in Cape Town for a reunion with Shane Warne, the former team-mate, friend and mentor who has informed so much of the Australian captain's agile, aggressive and inventive leadership. Warne is in South Africa ostensibly to work with the Twenty20 team's spin bowlers ahead of the World T20 in Bangladesh, but his presence for a pivotal match in the narrative of Australian cricket may prove to be an ideally-timed reassurance for Clarke and the coach Darren Lehmann.
When Warne and Clarke first became close on the 2005 Ashes tour, it was the younger man who took a lead role, offering an audience to the ageing legspinner as he juggled personal torments with unforgettable on-field feats. Now it was Warne offering a sympathetic ear and a few morsels of advice for a worried batsman and captain as they shared room service in the team hotel - much as they would have done in England all those years ago.
"That's what friends do isn't it?" Warne said. "The one thing I felt with Pup was that he's disappointed he hasn't got some runs lately, but as I said to him last night 'mate, let's look back at the last seven Test matches. You've come back from England, you've been hammered 3-0 - yes, it was a bit closer than everyone thought but the scoreline still read 3-0. But over the last seven Test matches you've won six and not everyone has relied on you, that should be a good thing'.
"I said 'okay, from a personal point of view you'd like to make a few more runs, but for the last few years if it wasn't for you we would have lost a lot more. So when [the Ashes] were on the line in the first few Test matches, you made back-to-back hundreds and played really well and then in the next five Tests after that other guys have put their hands up.
"I said 'you should be happy with that - I understand that you wanted to make some runs but you've lost one Test match in the last seven as captain, and you haven't made many runs'. That, to me, is good news. So I said 'stop stressing and worrying about it and make some runs in this Test match'."
Warne's advice may sound simple, but recent glimpses of Clarke at the batting crease would suggest it is the right kind. So eager has he been to score runs, and so worried about doing so, Clarke has been almost too keen in his search for the ball. Compare his dismissals in Port Elizabeth - bat jutted out in search for contact, away and in front of his body - with the century of Chris Rogers, who plays the ball posthumously late by comparison. A soothing "relax" from Warne may well prove valuable.
"He's one guy you don't have to worry about batting because we know what a class act he is, and you know that old adage about form being temporary but class being permanent," Warne said. "That's something I've been talking to him about, and just a few mindset things about the way he plays. He's a bit of a worrier, Pup, but the good thing is it hasn't affected his captaincy. He's been outstanding."
Warne's effect on the Australian team, now being led in something like his image by Clarke and another friend in Lehmann, will only be known at the end of the Test. But it is clear that his presence and knowledge will provide a significant aid. Lehmann will certainly not find a more avowed fan of his straightforward methods, where players are dealt with harshly, fairly but above all directly.
"I think he's doing a fantastic job, and created an environment where there are pretty high standards," Warne said of Lehmann. "We all know he's laid back and likes a beer and is pretty relaxed, but he can also be pretty tough. And he does it in a way that's charming, he's friendly when he's nailing you. It's always nice when there's a bit of that happening rather than just the old size 10. But I think he's brought a lot to the table.
"He's always had respect for the way he played the game, and he's earned a lot of respect from the group for the way he's conducted himself. He's learned a few lessons along the way, probably not to do radio interviews when he's had a few beers. But he's straight up, what you see is what you get, which is a good thing from a coach. If you're out of the side he'll tell you why, it won't be like 'I voted for you but the other three guys didn't'. He'll tell you straight."
Warne can certainly tell glowing tales of Newlands. He played in three Test matches at the ground and won them all, including his 100th in 2002. Having flown 16 friends and family over for the event, Warne put in one of his greatest displays, runs in each innings adding garnish to a nine-wicket haul spread across no fewer than 98 overs of rare precision on an unforgiving wicket. Australia's win sealed the series, and was one of the more notable victories of an era laden with them.
Such memories will be usefully retold to a younger generation still scarred by the events of 2011, when Clarke's bold 151 on the first day was completely obscured by Australia's second innings disintegration for 47. That episode unfolded when the team were without a coach, between the exit of Tim Nielsen and the appointment of Mickey Arthur, and Clarke summoned his best batting form in spite of it all.
This time around, Clarke will seek to regain something of that fluency. His search for the recently elusive sense of comfort and feel at the crease has led Clarke to the nets on both the day after the Port Elizabeth Test and on another scheduled day off for the team in Cape Town. "I'm doing everything I can to be a better player," he said. "If I walk out here and make a duck or make a double-hundred my attitude doesn't change as to the improvements I think my game needs.
"The past few years for me have been exceptional - it's been a great run - but I understand and respect that in this game you're going to go through some tough times as well. There's swings and roundabouts - that's the game. The number one role for me as captain is to make sure I'm leading from the front. I have high expectations on myself, and that will never change."
Clarke will worry this week, of that there can be no doubt. But with Warne at his side he may loosen up just a little. Just enough, perhaps, to win.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here