At Sydney, January 3-6, 2012. Australia won by an innings and 68 runs. Toss: India.
This was the 100th Test match played at the SCG, and it duly became a carnival of centuries. In all, nine were made or conceded, 11 if you count each of Clarke's three-in- one that will define the game for future generations. At the other end of the scale, Ishant Sharma, India's best bowler, maintained humour enough to doff his cap to the crowd's mocking applause when a century off his bowling was raised. It at least made for a more convivial meeting than the last one here between these teams.
It was also a match of near things. Ponting made his first Test century for two years, and his 40th in all, but only after going perilously close to running himself out on 99. Tendulkar, with the whole cricket world now awaiting his 100th international century, came within 20 of it on the last day, but was dislodged by the occasional finger-spin of Clarke, who by then had assumed naming rights to this Test.
The previous day, Clarke had declared with 329 to his name - Sydney's highest Test score, beating Tip Foster's 287 for England on debut in 1903-04, but within a lusty blow of Don Bradman's Test-best of 334, and perhaps a session's easy ride from both Matthew Hayden's Australian record 380 and Brian Lara's world mark of 400 not out. Arguably, the declaration was needlessly selfless, for the match was only half-played and, as it happened, Australia would win with a day to spare.
That led some to wonder if Clarke was trying too hard to gain the approval of Australian cricket fans who had read his apparent love of the high-profile high life as a lack of commitment and somehow un-Australian; who, in the course of Australia's decline, had made him (with Ponting) their favourite scapegoat; and who, only the previous summer, had hooted him at the same venue. It typified the ambiguity that has characterised Clarke's reception as an Australian player that even about this, his finest hour, there was debate. There could, though, be no misinterpretation about the outcome. Australia were still at best a team in transition, but yet again India, away from home, were meek and ineffectual.
Things began deceptively. Conscious of forecast warm weather, curator Tom Parker had kept moisture up to the pitch, which thus started spicy. Perhaps foolhardily, India batted first, and soon after tea were all out for 191. Pattinson did the early damage, but the three seamers were equally menacing, and Hilfenhaus's later flurry was no more than his due. To the top order, they kept the ball up so that it might either seam in or swing away; against the tail, they were ruthlessly short. Tendulkar dragged Pattinson on, but the other Indians all fell to pokes and prods, and again the facility of modern, Twenty20-inflected batsmanship against the moving ball came into question. Only Dhoni, with some insouciant hitting, resisted.
Zaheer Khan, replying in full-pitched kind, immediately had Australia in trouble at 37 for three. Thirteen wickets fell in the day, making 40 in the last three in the series. Clarke's late trio of boundaries from Yadav merely seemed the exception that proved the rule.
But by the next morning the movement had vanished, and for a day and a half Clarke, Ponting and Hussey rampaged. Ponting's gradual and sometimes gruelling return to form as he compiled his 100th Test score of 50 or more was consummated as he repeatedly clipped to the fence middle-and-leg deliveries which, a month previously, were trapping him lbw. Only when a century was within sight, and when lunch intervened inconveniently, did he falter. Not even his headlong dive at the crease for his 100th run would have saved him if Zaheer's throw had hit, and his celebration was at once joyful and sheepish. It had been two lean years. As Australia motored along, Indian tempers frayed. Kohli was spotted raising his middle finger to a section of the crowd, apparently in response to some baiting. He later tweeted that spectators had said "the worst things" about his mother and sister - and was fined 50% of his match fee.
Hussey then strafed the off field to move to 150 not out - his 16th Test century - in 253 balls, but his innings was reduced to a footnote by Clarke's opus. It was distinguished by crashing drives through cover and midwicket, by silvery footwork which meant that not once did off-spinner Ashwin deceive him in flight, but above all by its tempo. For ten hours nine minutes and 468 balls, Clarke made runs at an even clip and with Zen-like tranquillity, never forgetting the ritual of mutual boosterism, and becoming fidgety only when approaching milestones. Even past 300, he let deliveries go, as if prepared to bat for ever. In all, he hit 39 fours and a six, putting on 288 for the fourth wicket with Ponting and an unbroken 334 for the fifth with Hussey - both Australian records against India. Never before had a Test innings included two stands of more than 250. India wilted. With the second new ball, the estimable Sharma had Ponting caught at point and almost clung on to a thumping return catch from Clarke. But that was it. Dhoni set defensive fields - leg slip, but no slip, for instance - and otherwise sought by frequent, unethical and unpoliced twelfth-man interruptions to bring the match to a standstill. Against Australia, still wincing from Kolkata '01, it would never work. At length, it was Clarke who called a halt with a declaration midway through the third day that seemed rather to spare the bedraggled Indians. Two wickets by stumps vindicated him, and it would have been three but for Haddin's straightforward miss from Gambhir.
The match was now on such an uneven keel that India were able to make 400 in their second innings without seriously threatening to subvert Australia's triumph. There were four half-centuries, but Clarke would not be denied. Bowling mostly to expedite the arrival of the new ball, he made one pop at Tendulkar, whose snick brushed Haddin's gloves and was caught at slip. Nothing in two preceding aristocratic hours had presaged this. Hilfenhaus pleaded blissful ignorance to the next two wickets: he did not see the ball kiss Laxman's off bail, and thought Dhoni's scoop back to him might have been a bump ball. A replay proved otherwise. It left only the formalities.
At the end, Clarke was walking on air, but footsore nonetheless: in four days, he had been off the field for barely 50 minutes. If this massive win did not herald a new era, at least it evinced a new aura: surely now, Clarke had the legitimacy he craved.