Australia in West Indies 2011-12 April 14, 2012

Clarke's curiosity

An innate urge to understand the subtleties of the game has fuelled the development of the Australian captain's leadership skills

Mike Brearley's The Art of Captaincy, considered by most to be the first and last word on the subject, contains a passage in which he describes the difference between those who are drawn to leading a cricket team and those who are not. The willing footsoldiers who never consider taking captaincy's burden are described as preferring "being punted on a gondola through Venice to organising the trip and planning the route".

But of captains or captains-in-waiting, Brearley writes: "We are struck by the length of time that may elapse between one knock and the next. Above all we are fascinated by the complexity and variety of the game. We see that, tactically and psychologically, there is infinite scope for sense, sensitivity and flair. There are also, necessarily, almost unlimited ways in which we can go wrong."

Michael Clarke was four years old in 1985 when those words were penned, but they more or less sum up the innate sense of cricket curiosity that fuelled his education and has since driven his leadership of Australia. If Clarke's public words about the game can tend to drift into hyperbole, the enthusiasm that drives his choice of words is very real.

His utterances can sometimes be less thoughtful than his actions on the field, which are steeped in the imagination he saw from Shane Warne when they played together for Hampshire and Australia. There was also the example, good and bad, offered by Ricky Ponting, who always showed a greater capacity to lead by example on the field and the training ground than to place the ideal Test match fields or choose the sharpest combinations of bowlers. Clarke led his country at the Under-19 level, and after that endeavoured to think like a captain on the field even when others held the official title.

"I probably made a lot of mistakes at a young age," Clarke said of how his captaincy style evolved.

"I've had a lot of great people around me to help me and give me advice and I still do. Even as a kid I always looked at the game in a way more than just about my own performance. I wouldn't make my runs and then sit in the change room and not care about the rest of the game.

"I was always looking at how many runs is Ricky trying to get to before he declares, at Hampshire why is it that Warney's got a man on the wicket, I don't understand why you've got a fielder there so I would ask him. I've always wanted to know as much as I could about the game and why people were making decisions - why did you do that? Not just sit back and see it happen. I've always asked that question."

In Barbados, Clarke did not sit and wait. His declaration on the fourth day was astute, but so were his field choices in the third innings and his dictation of how the 192 required for victory should be chased - slow and steady before tea, fast and furious after it. At no time were Australia's players allowed to meander without a purpose, even if it had looked like it when Shane Watson and Ed Cowan chose to preserve their wickets on the final afternoon.

I've always wanted to know as much as I could about the game and why people were making decisions - why did you do that? Not just sit back and see it happen. I've always asked that question

"At times when the game's standing still you take a risk every now and then and you hope it's a sensible risk," Clarke said. "I was confident the West Indies certainly wouldn't have expected me to declare the other day, I was confident that if we bowled the way we wanted to bowl in the second innings we would at least give ourselves the best chance to knock West Indies over, and I never knew how long on day five the light would last.

"You need to think about a lot of stuff before you make a decision, don't get me wrong. I thought it was a risk but it was in my opinion more in our favour to win the game than lose the game."

Captains need luck as well as judgement, and every leader in the game can relate to Richie Benaud's oft-quoted line about captaincy being 90% luck and 10% skill, "but don't try it without the 10%". Clarke's skills were heavily influenced by Warne, but there was also the sense of adventure and tactical awareness that runs strongly through the best cricket played by his home state New South Wales.

The former wicketkeeper Brad Haddin has similar qualities, shown when he led his state with distinction, while Mark Taylor, the most fondly remembered Australian captain of recent times, learned much from the example set for him when Geoff Lawson led the Blues - a rare bowling captain. In each case there was an acceptance of the risks inherent in chasing victory, but no sense of shrinking away from that risk - matches are there for the winning, not the saving.

Since the changeover of the Australian team's support staff, Clarke has found a willing ally in Mickey Arthur, who had previously formed a strong bond with Graeme Smith as he grew into the South African captaincy at a young age. Smith and Clarke are very different characters, but in each case they benefited from Arthur's sharp eye and happiness to support the natural cricketing inclinations of each man.

"There's both sides. If we lose the other day well I made the wrong decision and that's the risk you take. That's part of captaincy," Clarke said. "I think Mickey's fantastic, he's wonderful to have beside me and our friendship continues to grow, and his advice is what I need - I think our relationship is very strong and makes my life easier. So that guidance and our communication is crucial as well to the team's success we've had so far and what we strive to achieve over the next 12 months."

If there is an area in which Clarke could become more curious, it is about the wider world. When he spoke of Trinidad reminding him of Sri Lanka, it was of similar cricket pitches and hotels, nothing more. In 2010, before he had replaced Ponting, Clarke said he would play cricket every day of his life if it could be at the SCG - a seeker of varied cultural experiences he is not. But knowledge of a cricket pitch, a batsman or a bowler, does not always require such breadth of vision. Clarke is simply an excellent reader of a game and, after the fashion of another Benaud line, he can generally be said to be thinking at least a few overs ahead of the present.

Knowledge of team-mates and their states of mind was one area in which Clarke may have been thought deficient before he took the job, for he had at times been a self-contained persona, particularly on tour. But he has spent enough time building that element of his leadership to be in touch with and comfortable around all the players under his command. His desire to be across all the affairs of the team and ensure they are running to his satisfaction has helped to encourage consistency and accountability.

Clarke is also helped by the fact that the Australian team in 2012 travels with a vast and varied staff to attend to the needs many captains of the past were saddled with. The former England batsman Doug Insole's definition of a cricket captain's duties as those of a "public relations officer, agricultural consultant, psychiatrist, accountant, nursemaid and diplomat" no longer quite applies.

Still, irrespective of Pat Howard's appointment as team performance manager, Clarke is the man held responsible by the public for the performance of the Australian team. He is, as Brearley related, more responsible for the fortunes of his team than leaders in almost any other sport because "even in its shortest form each game lasts too long, and its pace is too slow, for excitement and intuition to achieve all or most of a team's aims".

For all he did right in Bridgetown, Clarke was still given pause by the moments when his gambits did not work out. "The other day the ball I moved out a slip to gully it went straight there," he said of an instance in the first innings. "So that's the game. When it's your day make the most of it because it often goes the other way." At the moment, most days are turning out to be Clarke's.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here