Clarke pulls his final few tricks
He stands at slip directing operations, the ringmaster. He wears a wide-brimmed sun hat. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled down, the collar is always up. His sunglasses are attached, back to front, to the crown of the hat. He has some fidgets: a tug of the material on the shoulder of his shirt, a rub of the hands and then he leans forward with his hands on his knees, ready. Most often he catches anything that flies off the edge of the bat towards him. He is a brilliant fielder. Around the upper part of his left arm is a black band. It is there in memory of Phillip Hughes. He is a sensitive man and Hughes was like a brother.
The man is Michael Clarke, captain of the Australian cricket team, and he is retiring at the end of the match. England hold him in high regard, so much so that Alastair Cook organised a guard of honour when he walked to the wicket on Thursday. This show of respect is double-edged as far as the recipient is concerned. On the one hand it recognises a magnificent career, multiplying the generous applause of the crowd, who are eager to acknowledge a fine opponent. On the other, it plays with emotion and diverts attention from the job at hand. Clarke shook Cook's hand and their brief words reflected the last throes of battles won and lost.
Norman Yardley did the same for Don Bradman back in 1948. Yardley added three cheers for good measure. Bradman was bowled second ball by Eric Hollies for nought. England captains should have thought of it before. Clarke was nearly out first ball, close to being both caught at leg slip and run out. He made it to 15 before a wicked ball and the thinnest snick to the keeper did for him. Probably, it was his last ever innings - though he would not have known it at the time.
Just before the tea break, Clarke had summoned Nathan Lyon to bowl and Lyon had rewarded the hunch with a fizzing offbreak that spun past Cook's bat and hit off stump.
Clarke is good at hunches. He has a brain made for cricket, spotting nuances and noticing flaws and fluctuations in opposing batsmen. He also sees something in his own bowlers that others miss. He is good with angles and exceptional at exploiting a weakness. For all this he is dependent on his bowling attack. If they are off, so will he be. Generally, his tactics err on the side of attack. This has been a good thing overall but can look detached if the game turns against him, as it has at crucial times during this series.
Here at The Oval, as I write soon after tea on the second day, everything suddenly turns to gold. Adam Lyth plays a horrible shot and Peter Siddle bowls the original jaffa to Ian Bell.
Joe Root plays at a high bouncing ball from Mitchell Marsh and the Australians appeal. It is given not out. Clarke, who has not managed a single successful decision review all series, goes with the instinct of the bowler and few others. It is a long review. Root is proved out, exactly as Clarke was when he reviewed his own edge to the wicketkeeper the previous day. Clarke is proved right. Australia have their man. Clarke ruffles Marsh's hair and throws his head back in laughter.
England fall apart. It becomes increasingly apparent that we are in for another short Test match. These are the last hours of a mighty career. Clarke begins to think about his life in the game and can dare to dream of finishing with a win in an Ashes Test. It is some small consolation for the excruciating defeat in the series.
Clarke is on the balcony of the OCS Stand at The Oval. The morning sun floods the ground with a beautiful light. He has agreed to an exclusive interview for Channel Nine in Australia. It will be recorded now and go out during the lunch break, close to prime viewing back home where the time in the eastern states will be 10pm. It falls upon Mark Taylor and me to conduct the interview.
We begin by talking about the influence of his father and grandfather. Together, along with other members of the family, they have travelled the 12,000 miles to see the final curtain call. It was with the two of them that he played in the backyard. He talked about that freedom of youth and the sheer, unbridled joy in the game when you first discover it. He thinks the most challenging time in his development was from boy to man, rather than, say, from grade to state cricket or state cricket to the international stage.
He talks easily, thoughtfully and enthusiastically. He remembers his debut hundred in India and his follow-up hundred at home at the Gabba. He says he was so thrilled to be given an Australian cap that he wouldn't have minded if he had made a golden duck on either occasion. He added that he was hanging onto the coat-tails of extraordinary cricketers who drove the team's success. The family bloodline taught Clarke old-fashioned values and he felt there was something worthy and old-fashioned in the way the great Australia team that he first knew went about their business.
He had a sheepish giggle about the haircut, the blond streaks and the diamond ear stud of the moment. We did not touch on the evolution around him and how, imperceptibly back then, Australia was moving from a nation built on farms and in factories to one making its way in the big city. He was not to know that his self-styled metrosexuality (as they like to call it these days) would become a case study for those Australians who still yearned for Allan Border and Rod Marsh. That the land down under has not shown him unconditional love is nothing more than a reflection of the way in which he has moved with the changing demographic of the population and the global influences that come with it.
He rates the 2005 Ashes in England his favourite series because it showed him just how tough Test cricket can be. There were many champions among those teams. He added that Andrew Flintoff was the most difficult bowler he has played against. Michael Vaughan has always said that Clarke's ability to take the game away at a moment's notice was a serious concern. Clarke felt that about Brian Lara, the opponent alongside Sachin Tendulkar he most admired. Of all the cricketers he has seen, Shane Warne is the standout and the man, of course, who became mentor and friend.
We talked about the back-to-back annus mirabilis years of 2011-12 and 2012-13. From the November of 2011 to the January of 2013, the Australian captain made a triple-hundred, three doubles and two other plain old hundreds: for the calendar year of 2012 he made 1595 runs at 106.33. Very Bradman. He couldn't put his finger on the difference between the magic then and what was missing now. He said he felt as good in the nets on Thursday morning - and as physically fit - as he had ever done. Except now, of course, he can't make a trick.
He referred back to the free spirit of youth and then made a fascinating point. The more you know of yourself, the more dangerous it can be. Yes, you know the good things, but you know the bad things too, and they can haunt you. When you are young, you bat without a care in the world; when you are in form, you bat without a thought in your head. When you are older and out of form, your world collides.
Taylor asked him about his favourite performances. He thought awhile and blew out his cheeks before saying that nothing stood out like the triumphs of the team: two World Cups, two Ashes whitewashes, two hard-fought series wins in South Africa. His only regret was not winning an Ashes series in England. The interview lasted 25 minutes and rated extremely well in Australia.
England have been bowled out for 149 and Clarke has enforced the follow-on. Few captains do so these days. Steve Waugh was badly stung in India back in 2001: the game when Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman put on 376 together and India went on to win. Since then, no Australia captain has taken the supposed risk. Today, mind you, Clarke has 332 runs to play with. Given the dodgy weather forecast for Sunday and the bad one for Monday, it is the only decision.
Each of the Australian players is wearing the baggy green cap, including the captain. It is a hot day and the sunglasses are wrapped around his eyes. He tugs on his collar, hitches his trousers, wipes his hands on his backside and crouches, hands on knees. At 12.39pm he falls away to his left at slip and catches Adam Lyth. At 1.53pm - back in the sun-hat - he drops Ian Bell, a sharp chance that he usually swallows. At 2.19pm he catches Bell at slip, an easy one. At 4.15pm, standing close at slip to Lyon, he catches Ben Stokes. He stares at the ball in his hands as if he is fearful of letting it out of his sight. Maybe he will keep it as a souvenir.
Constantly, his brain engages with the game and with his players. Relentlessly, he spits on his hands and wipes them on his trousers in readiness for an opportunity. The sunglasses come on and off. He appears every bit as skittish as he did when the job was new and the cricketing world was at his feet. He rings the bowling changes into the yellow evening sunlight. Cook and Jos Buttler are in game resistance, the hope of cleaning up the match today is diminishing.
Oops, maybe not. The old fox just brought Steven Smith into the attack and at 6.22pm, with just eight minutes play remaining on Saturday, Cook has been caught at forward short leg. As Geoffrey Boycott said on Channel Five: "Brilliant captaincy!" But Buttler and Mark Wood survived until the close.
Leading the Australian cricket team out for perhaps the last time, the captain receives a tremendous reception from a full house. The Oval has said many a goodbye and the English people, along with bands of Australians dressed yellow and green, rise to their feet as one. Clarke shakes the hands of his players before he is warmly embraced by Siddle. It is another baggy green moment, all 11 of them in the cap worn by Bradman and McCabe, Harvey and Benaud, the Chappells, Border and Waugh. At 20 past midday, with England eight down, the rain comes. So he leads the team off, frustrated.
Two hours and 45 minutes later, they are back. It does not take long. Stuart Broad gets a good one from Siddle and Moeen Ali edges to Peter Nevill. The delighted Australians come together as one but this precious moment belongs mainly to Clarke and Chris Rogers. They applaud the Australian supporters and then head for the dressing room. The team line up to give their captain their own guard of honour and then usher Rogers the same way. The England team come down the steps to greet him warmly. It is a reminder of the excellent spirit in which the series has been played. This is a credit to the captains and a far cry from Australia 20 months ago.
The sun is suddenly shining again. Clarke is not out of sight for long. He heads for the Australian supporters, to sign autographs and pose for photographs. They all want a piece of him, roaring their approval, but time is short. Indeed, every microphone on the field is immediately thrust at him. He remains typically calm, dignified and relaxed.
On the presentation stage with Michael Atherton for Sky TV, he acknowledges the cricket played by England and goes on to say that Smith is just the man for the future of the Australian team. Atherton talks to him for close to five minutes until it is Clarke himself who calls time on the conversation by saying something like: "This isn't my stage, Athers, it belongs to Alastair Cook, so I'm outta here."
Earlier he had been door-stepped by Ian Ward and now, having left Atherton, he went to Test Match Special, Radio 5 Live, Channel Nine live and Channel Nine news, Cricket Australia, and finally to us at Channel Five. He looked fresher and younger than he had for a year - and goodness what a year this man has had!
I have always enjoyed our interviews. Wondering if I might be blind in my appreciation, I asked Jeff Crowe, the match referee, what the officials made of the Australian captain. Jeff said they were all sad to see him go and added that Clarke's manners, openness and common sense had made him the best of the captains with whom to work.
We said goodbye for the last time in our roles as cricketer and presenter. Soon enough, he will be in a commentary box. I felt sad too. I have been a fan from the first minute I saw him at the wicket for Hampshire and met him after the close of play. His deep love for the game was evident then and has not waned since. His enthusiasm for friendship and life is a reflection of his loyalty to those he trusts and enjoys. His heart is in a good place. This was proved moments later when he went to his family. There were hugs and tears from those who know him best and love him the most.
It is surprising to note that his batting had no obvious signature, other than its sense of adventure. For sure it was easy on the eye, coming as it did with crisp footwork and beautiful timing. Always he was busy: a sportsman in search in opportunity. Clarke's arrival at the wicket invariably coincided with action. It is part of his brilliance as a cricketer that more often than not he changed the nature of the match.
Occasionally the short ball ruffled his feathers and then he would look awkward and introspective. He is no lone ranger there. At other times, he played the short stuff wonderfully well - Flintoff at Lord's in 2009; Dale Steyn in Johannesburg in 2009 and Morne Morkel in Cape Town in 2014 are examples that come instantly to mind. His courage and tenacity in the last of those innings, when clearly out of touch, inspired victory in the match and secured the series.
Pictures of him now and then - i.e., in the days of those debut hundreds - tell the story of a career at the highest level and the strain of life led in the spotlight. It is a privileged way to make a living but not an easy one. The position of the Australian cricket captain remains as important to the nation as it has ever done. Clarke has won a tad more than 50% of the Tests he has captained, a record to rank with the best, and has done so without Warne or McGrath on the team sheet. His statesmanship at the passing of Phillip Hughes allowed people to understand him better for it was a raw time that challenged family life, Australian hearts and the game's conscience.
He leaves us with memories of thrilling, instinctive cricket and one of the brightest smiles the game has seen. It is a hard act to follow, for the job has not become any easier. Australia must be hugely proud of the manner in which its most recent captain has led the summer game and brought trophies as a matter of course. His legacy should not be the result of this last series, but rather the enthusiasm with which he has played and the uninhibited way in which his batting and leadership have entertained its audience all over the world. Go well, Michael, as Richie Benaud would say.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK