Michael Clarke: a battle for greatness and love
It was a perfect cricket image. The young gun who had never been embraced, had struggled to ever make a positive impact, who had been given a failing team, was smashing India around, in the nation's cap, with a sponsorless bat. Running up those historical SCG stairs, chatting mid-innings to the country through Channel Nine, and trying to win over a nation of doubters.
For the first time all those whispers, from current players, former players, the media and the fans, were drowned out by nothing but applause.
That is what Michael Clarke has always wanted, to be not just a player, not just a captain, but a great - a legend, loved and idolised forever. One of the golden baggy-green wearers. Trumper. Bradman. Border. Clarke.
Clarke wanted to be the hero riding the white horse. He wanted to be loved, adored, and iconic.
Eight years earlier he did what Australian batsmen for generations before him had never really been able to do, he treated India like his own personal playground. He scored 151, on debut, on one of the surfaces that Australia had spent decades treating like kryptonite. Clarke made those men look silly as he danced down to the great Anil Kumble and Australian torturer Harbhajan Singh. When facing Zaheer Khan, as he approached his hundred, Clarke took off his helmet and replaced it with a baggy green. It was another great image.
Former Australian legends had already whispered that he was a once-in-a-generation cricketer. Now we could see it for ourselves. He was called a breath of fresh air, his hairstyling became an odd media obsession. And he was the young star of one of the greatest teams of all time.
Clarke stated that he wanted to be one of those players who was never dropped. Don Bradman had been dropped. Ricky Ponting had been dropped. But here was a young kid stating that he wanted to stay in the team forever. He might as well have said, "I don't want to be a player, I want to be a legend."
The problem was that after the Bangalore innings, Clarke was like any young player. He had flaws, he had bad days, and teams played on his patience. He also hit the ball in the air a lot. From his third to his eighth Test series, he didn't make a hundred. The pressure mounted. People stopped calling him a breath of fresh air, and started using "flashy". It seemed like he was getting special treatment that he didn't warrant. He was seen as a passenger. And while the whispers of him being dropped, and the whispers of those who turned on him got louder, Clarke continued to fight for his place, at press conferences far more than in the middle.
Then there was his real battle. Everything had come easy to Clarke. Since the age of 12 everyone had told him he would play for Australia. He was a cricketing Richie Rich. In his first three seasons he was a decent cricketer for New South Wales and hinted at something special, but there were no magical 1000-run seasons. There were no double- or triple-tons. He never averaged over 50. But with Clarke, it was, and had always been, obvious he was an Australian player. So he was promoted.
The biggest problem with this was that when he lost form for Australia, he had nothing to compare it to. He had been a teenage prodigy, a stalwart by 20 for the toughest state in the country: the pearl from the academy and then the young idol in this champion team. He didn't know how to be the struggling batsman. And he couldn't dig his way out of it.
His perfect career was dented when he was dropped.
Brad Hodge, Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson all played Tests in this time. Clarke was even brought back for Bangladesh, and then redropped. But when Watson's body ruled him out of the 2006-07 Ashes, Clarke came back in. With Australia cruising past a non-existent England, Clarke strode out and did what he does at his absolute best - score pretty runs. So pretty, and plentiful, that he was never dropped again.
Clarke in form is liquid batting. He has these long, luscious drives. He has time and magic feet. There is nowhere he can't score, no type of bowler that can stop him. Like a hybrid of Mark Waugh's timing and Michael Slater's feet. He was even compared to Neil Harvey, the original golden-footed youngster. It was all so pretty, but the whispers were still there.
Runs aren't enough when you want to be a legend. You have to make special runs. Steve Waugh crisis runs. Ricky Ponting stamp-of-authority runs. Allan Border one-man-army runs. Clarke merely scored runs. Not big runs. Not attention-grabbing runs. Not clutch runs. For any other player, it would have been enough. But he didn't want to be just another player, and the fans now wanted more from him. They demanded he become the legend they, and he, wanted. Instead he was ethereal, floating around world cricket, never making any real impact at all.
As Australia moved on from a champion team to a mediocre one, Clarke was much the same. His average was in the mid-40s. He developed a weird habit of being dismissed just before a break. The whole team was struggling, the system itself was buckling, but Clarke took the full brunt of the hate. The desperation. The anger.
The whispers about his image as a Bondi-brunching bikini-babe-dating wannabe model were now constant screams. He posed in underwear, he liked expensive cars and wore the latest fashions, while Australia plodded around international cricket. People acted as if he did all that and didn't work on his game. As if the two couldn't go together. He was a young, rich, good-looking Australian who was moving his way up from working class to a Sydney mover and shaker. He was a slick publicity machine. And people despised him for it. There has always been a battle in Australia between working class, and those from the working class who aspire for more.
The great Australian dream is to own your own home. Not to be rich. Not to be famous. Do your job as well as you can, don't showboat, keep your head down, and have a cold beer at the end of the day. Michael Clarke, by no fault of his own, wanted more. While Shane Warne ate Hawaiian pizzas and smoked durries, Clarke sipped cocktails and ate at hot spots.
Australia, the sort of Australia that boos indigenous football legend Adam Goodes, couldn't handle that.
Clarke became vice-captain, and captain in waiting, but no one in the country seemed to like him. The more he did to try and get the public's love, the more they hated him. His high-profile girlfriend, glamour model Lara Bingle, was an Australian Kim Kardashian. And their public displays of affection, including nauseating conversations on Twitter, grated. They clearly wanted to be an "it couple". They were clearly in love, and Clarke was willing to miss a Test when Bingle's father passed away. But even that was used against him. A real man, apparently, is one who leaves his partner alone as she mourns her father's loss.
Much in the same way that a prime minister's spouse is important, so was Bingle. She wasn't seen as the right kind of future Mrs Australian Cricket Captain. Few seemed to notice that the best run of Clarke's career was when he was with Bingle.
But their paparazzi-friendly romance was not destined to last forever. Bingle's past caught up with her when nude pictures of her found their way into the public, and Clarke decided to move on. The only problem was that Australia was in the middle of a tour of New Zealand. Clarke left the tour to break up with her. He then went back to New Zealand and made a quality hundred. Had any other player scored a hundred after a break-up mid-tour, they would have got praise. But had any other player broken up mid-tour, no one would have known. His life was a series of public whispers in gossip pages. He got grief for leaving the tour, he got grief for breaking up with Bingle, and he got faint praise for one of the most important hundreds of his career.
He wasn't good enough, he wasn't hard enough, he wasn't humble enough, he wasn't working class enough, he wasn't what they wanted. And deep down, he wasn't what he wanted, as he wanted to be loved. He was averaging 50 in Test cricket. That did not get him love. The love he craved, the love he thought he deserved.
Then there was the altercation with Simon Katich. The facts didn't matter. Or what had brought it all about. Katich had choked Clarke in the dressing room because Clarke wanted the Australian cricket war song sung earlier. Forget whispers, this was the only fact anyone wanted to say: Katich was a man, Clarke was soft. One worried about manly traditions, one worried about dinner reservations and VIP rooms.
Those outside the Australian team were spreading rumours of how un-liked he was. Even a Cricket Australia blog by Brett Geeves mocked him. The other players whispered about how he had no real friends, hung out with his bat sponsor, and was Shane Warne's pet.
By the Ashes in 2010-11 his batting was in a funk, his average dipping back to the mid-40s. His back was now slowing him down, making him an occasional target. As vice-captain, and captain in waiting, of an Australian team losing their first home Ashes in 24 years, he was barely seen. At the crease, or at press conferences. His all-time low came when in Adelaide in the second innings he showed some form, before letting Kevin Pietersen get him out moments before the close of play. Then not walking when it was obvious he hit it. Then standing there embarrassed as the DRS made a mockery of not walking. Then apologising via Twitter for not walking.
At the same time Doug Bollinger was one of the most popular cricketers in Australia. As a player, Bollinger never made it. As a man, he did. He was big, loud and funny -often not intentionally. Australia embraced his unpolished nature, his natural ockerness. They loved him when he accidentally kissed his beer sponsor, not the Australian crest, and when he sang badly in a cricket ad. Clarke, in his whole career, had never been as loved as Doug the Rug. A Sydney newspaper ran a poll on who they wanted as the next Australian captain during this time. Clarke got less than 15% of the vote. Cameron White got over 40% despite not being in the side. Had Bollinger been in the poll, Clarke would have lost to him. Had it been an election, Clarke would not have been the people's choice.
Clarke was booed in Melbourne in Ricky Ponting's last game as captain.
When Ponting did step down, it should have been a formality that Clarke took the job. There was no one else even in the line, Clarke was vice-captain, just tick the box. But Cricket Australia board member and former team-mate Matthew Hayden questioned Clarke's character. He spoke up for the masses. He used Clarke leaving a tour to break up with his girlfriend. He used the Katich incident. He used the fact that Clarke didn't get along with people. He might as well have talked about his modelling and where he brunched.
But Cricket Australia board member and Clarke ally Mark Taylor stood up for him. And Cricket Australia chose their only actual choice.
Clarke, in his first Test as captain, at home, was booed.
The Australian captain, by accident, seems to mirror Australian society in his time. When Border led Australia, he led a country on the move, making a mark by working as hard as they could. Steve Waugh's aggressive patriotism and arrogance was the Australia of the late '90s. And Ponting's skill, frustration and anger at the little things were all there as he and Australia moved from a suburban country to a metropolitan one.
Clarke was also representative of Australia. He was the lucky batsman leading the lucky country. He hadn't worked as hard as the men before him. He hadn't got where he was through hard work but with natural resources. He wasn't content with just a home of his own. He wanted a property portfolio. He was rich, and no longer working class. He may not have been the sort of Australian captain Australia wanted, lusted after, thought they deserved. But he was very much the modern face of Australia. Maybe that mirror was the problem.
Clarke made a hundred in Sri Lanka, as he led his team to a win in their first series. In South Africa, in Cape Town, on a pitch that his batsmen could not understand, he came to the wicket at 40 for 3. Many Australian fans would have written him off. Instead he made 151 out of 284. His team bowled South Africa out for 96. All they needed was a decent second innings and the Test was theirs. Forty-seven all out followed. And Clarke lost his chance to win his second series as well. Clarke had made almost 50% of Australia's runs in the match.
Australia won the next Test, and they had drawn away from home against the world's No. 1 team. A home draw against New Zealand was odd. But then India turned up.
Clarke, the man who had never been loved, embraced or respected, was given the warmest embrace at the SCG as he passed each milestone. It could have been Trumper or Bradman. It was respect. It was an embrace. It was love.
For the next year, Clarke kept feeling the love. He added a double-century to his triple-century against India. He scored two more doubles the following summer, against South Africa. He was now dating his high-school sweetheart. He was now writing for the paper that had slagged him off.
And the Sydney Morning Herald wrote this: "Dear Pup, on behalf of the Australian sports media and cricket fans across this sunburnt nation, it's time to officially say sorry. These aren't token words. A journalist finds it almost as hard to utter the 's' word as John Howard did." And then ended with: "It's not your fault you like to wear the latest cool duds and like a good time away from the field. Your results with the cricket bat, and the decisions you make as our leader, are the only two credentials you need worry about. On both counts, you're passing with flying colours, and that's all that matters. You've started your new life with your lovely new wife, now it's time we started our relationship with you afresh."
To get a public apology all Michael Clarke had to do was score 329 not out, 210, 259 not out and 230 in one year.
Even then, Clarke would never win everyone over. But this was monumental. Clarke was in charge. Clarke had respect. He had climbed the mountain. He was special. Now, to become a legend.
With Clarke was a whole new team. Mickey Arthur the cheery coach. John Inverarity the scholarly selector. Pat Howard the executive general manager to team performance. And Michael Clarke, as selector.
Those good times lasted only as long as Australia were in Australia. Overseas, Clarke has never had long lasting good times. His career average away from home is under 40. It is more than 20 less than his average at home.
Clarke's horror started in India as Australia collapsed in every single way imaginable to a 4-0 loss. Clarke didn't even finish the last Test. Australia's new feel-good times came crashing down as Clarke and Arthur cracked down on ill-discipline with Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson about homework. He was trying to flex his muscle as a leader, and stamp his authority on a team he very much saw as his. And instead he, although mostly Arthur, were mocked for making Australian cricket perform school tasks.
By the time of the 2013 Champions Trophy, things got worse. When David Warner swung a punch at Joe Root in Birmingham, Australian cricket fell apart. Clarke stayed in London getting treatment on his back, and only left London for a charity game involving Warne. His team needed him, his coach was on the way out, and he didn't take the 90-minute train to sort any of it out.
Darren Lehmann was brought in to settle everyone down. Brad Haddin was back for a bit of leadership as well. It wasn't a great sign for Clarke's captaincy. Arthur was off saying that Clarke had referred to Watson as a cancer. Australia were losing 3-0. They were 0-7 in their last two tours.
Then England toured Australia. And Mitchell Johnson was back. Haddin had the series of his life. Ryan Harris' knees squeezed out gold. And Clarke added a 5-0 to his resume. That 5-0 is as iconic as the unbeaten 329.
South Africa were up next, and it was in Cape Town that Clarke did his best work. Australia were 1-1 in their three-Test series. Australia won the toss and batted. The Australia batsmen had failed twice in the previous match, only Warner had looked comfortable. And Morne Morkel was fired up.
In the 41st over Morkel started bowling short to Clarke. That over, he hit Clarke in the ribs. In the 43rd over he hit him on the arm. The 45th over he hit him on the head, hand and in the gut. The hit on the arm broke Clarke's arm. That was an hour into Clarke's innings. In all, with that broken arm, Clarke made an unbeaten 161 in 430 minutes. Well over 300 of them with that break. He carried a tired team to a Test win, a series win, and they beat the world's No. 1 team to take that crown themselves.
There was no packed home crowd, no iconic clean-skin bats or baggy green, it was just surviving a monster, playing with the pain and making his team the best on earth.
The loss to Pakistan that followed was disappointing, but it was still barely a blip. Yet when he got back to Australia, there were whispers. This time from within Cricket Australia that all was not rosy. A hamstring injury had slowed down Clarke, and there were further whispers that he was getting too big for his boots. All those whispers shut down completely when Phillip Hughes passed away.
If Clarke wasn't the nation's captain before that day, he was on it. When he stood to give the eulogy, it was an important moment. Then he went out to bat in Adelaide, to lead. He, like many of his team-mates, used it as a public tribute to his mate. But then his back gave out. It wasn't as brutal as a broken arm, he didn't have to leave the tour like he did when he was to break up with Lara Bingle, but he had to leave the field. And then he came back on and became the first Australian captain to score a hundred after retiring hurt. He did it with a battered back, a battling technique and a broken heart. When he made the 100th run, he didn't jump around, he didn't have the energy, the body or the heart for it. His hundred was battling physical limits and emotional realities.
It was a legendary hundred, a great hundred. Iconic. After it he was so drained he said he may not play again.
Instead he commentated. After retweeting a tweet from a fan suggesting he should join Channel Nine, he joined Channel Nine. Some of his team-mates were not happy with his position of judging them on air. The whispers started again.
This was a man who had made a hundred with a broken arm, made a hundred with a broken heart, won an Ashes 5-0, yet he still couldn't silence them. With the hamstring injury from Adelaide still a problem, and Steven Smith anointed and ready as his successor. Some started to question his place in the ODI team.
Clarke worked hard, as Warne tried to sway public opinion for him. And Clarke would play in the World Cup. On the eve of the final he would announce his retirement so that the occasion would not be about him. It became all about him for that very reason. Australia won the World Cup, Clarke was given a standing ovation at the same MCG that had viciously booed him the last match before he became Test captain.
Michael Clarke stood in that vicious coliseum a conquering hero. He had conquered the world, and the ground that mocked him. It was another of those perfect images.
When Clarke married in 2012 he released the perfect image via Twitter. It was his wife in a beautiful, extravagant wedding dress smiling down from her white horse at her dream man, who is staring back at her. It was just another perfect Michael Clarke image.
There have been times in Clarke's history when he rode that white horse. When what he accomplished could only be called great, legendary or iconic. There are many others when he has walked beside it.
When Michael Clarke walked off the ground for the final time at Trent Bridge, he never looked up, and there was no applause for him. There was too much English celebration to hear the whispers. But Clarke heard them anyway.
No matter how hard he tried, how perfect he thought he was, how much control he had, he was never in control of his image. There will be those who call him a great. There will be whispers.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber