Captaincy renaissance marks Clarke's 100th Test
The last man to captain Australia while playing his 100th Test turned the occasion into a celebration. Ricky Ponting reached triple figures when he stepped on to the SCG in January 2006, then again when he made 120 in the first innings, and a third time when he crunched an unbeaten 143 in the second innings. He was responsible for Australia chasing down 287 for victory, which delivered a 2-0 series win against a strong South African outfit.
It won't much matter to Michael Clarke whether he scores a pair or a pair of hundreds, as long he finishes the match the same way Ponting did - with a series victory. If that happens, he will have to wait for the official presentation at the SCG in early January to lift the urn. It is hard to believe that in the last Ashes Test in Sydney, Clarke was booed by a section of the crowd as he walked out for the toss, filling in for Ponting as captain.
There is still the odd fan who views Clarke as a pretty boy, remembering the diamond earring and the Ferrari that were key parts of his image early in his career. But, as the internet meme says, haters gonna hate. The boos from the crowd didn't endure. Clarke started scoring hundreds like they were fifties, double-centuries like they were tons. And now, three years on from his captaincy debut at the SCG, he is poised to deliver the Ashes back to his country.
"He's a fighter," Adam Gilchrist said in Perth this week. "He's not a guy that prances around and just has flashy cars or clothes. He likes flashy cars, he likes good clothes, but he's a fighter and he's got some real character in there.
"And I think, not only his team-mates are feeling that now but also the Australian public I think have seen that, and there seems to be a trend change in acceptance of him. No one's ever questioned his batting ability, his runs speak for themselves, but I think they're enjoying seeing his character come through that everyone can engage with and relate to."
Rightly or wrongly, Australian cricketers are judged on their performances against England, and captains are assessed on the success or failure of their Ashes leadership. Kim Hughes was the last Australian captain who never led an Ashes-winning team; Clarke has the worst losing percentage of any Australian skipper since Hughes. But now Clarke has the chance to use his 100th Test to share the Ashes-winning feeling with his squad; none besides him have won the Ashes before.
"That's probably why it's most special for me, the fact that we have a chance to win the Ashes and continue to perform like we have in the first two Test matches," Clarke said. "It's obviously fantastic that I've been able to play 99 Test matches for my country, something I'm certainly proud of. I have my family coming, which is extra special. But in regards to being your 100th Test, it's not a focus for me at all. There's enough other reasons why this Test match is so special to me and to this team."
Clarke's parents will be in Perth to watch his milestone match, just as they were in Bangalore in 2004 to see him score a century on Test debut. It was clear back then Clarke was an old-school Test batsman. Twenty20 didn't suit him; touch and finesse are his strengths more than might and muscle. Twenty-six Test hundreds and an average of 52 make him not only the standout Australian batsman of his generation, but one of the finest in modern times.
His record is not perfect; his average outside Australia is a more unremarkable 42. That is still solid, and puts him in the realm of Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey and Ian Chappell. But at home, his Test average of 65 places him second only to Don Bradman, among Australian batsmen to have played at least 10 Tests in their own country. But for all his Test runs, Clarke's legacy will be judged in terms of his captaincy as much as his own performance.
Ricky Ponting wrote this year of his concerns about Clarke as a leader before he took on the captaincy, intimating that, at times, Clarke appeared more concerned with himself than with the team. Michael Hussey said he worried about the team culture that developed under the leadership of Clarke and coach Mickey Arthur, arguing that on the 2012 tour of the West Indies, in particular, he noticed an environment where players only cared about their own positions.
But Hussey also noted that Clarke was a selector at the time, which contributed to an atmosphere in which players were fearful of stepping out of line in his presence. Clarke handed in his notice as a selector after the 4-0 loss in India this year, although it was not accepted by Cricket Australia until the eve of the Ashes in England. Clarke said captaincy had been a learning experience and that giving up his place on the selection panel was one of the best moves he had made.
"I'm sure there's plenty of things I would have done differently," Clarke said in Perth on Thursday. "Standing down from being a selector, my main reason for that was to commit that time to the players, whether it be at training or outside of cricket, rather than committing that time to the selectors, because I do think that it's a full-time job to be a selector ... I think it's been the best thing for my game and hopefully it's been the best thing for the team as well.
"I definitely think I am learning on the job, there's no doubt about it. The time outside of actually captaining on the field is something that I didn't expect to be as hectic as what it is. There's a lot of stuff off the field now as a captain of any team, but especially the Australian cricket team, that takes a full commitment. I don't think you know what that feels like until you're in the position."
Now, with new coach Darren Lehmann in charge of the group and a winning mentality having returned, the atmosphere around the squad is noticeably happier. Clarke enters his 100th Test with his men - and the Australian public - firmly behind him. His sweary sledge at James Anderson in the dying stages of the Gabba Test, captured on stump microphone, has not done him any harm in the eyes of the fans. Nor of his players.
"The way he's been through the past 12 months, I've been really happy with his style of captaincy," Mitchell Johnson said. "He's been aggressive when he's needed to be, pulled it back when he's needed to. He's just been really good on the field as a skipper. As we've seen through this Test series he's really stepped up when we've needed him to as well, not necessarily with the bat but with what happened in Brisbane ... I thought it was great what he did, he stood up for his players. That's great, that's what you want from a captain.
"It's a proud moment for him, but also for his team, being around him for his hundredth Test. It's a phenomenal effort to make a hundred Tests. It's a lot of days out in the field and a lot of heartache that goes with it, but also a lot of happy times as well, like we're going through at the moment. Hopefully we can make it a happy time for him. He'll definitely be feeling it a bit, he'll be nervous and at the same time excited."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here