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At Bangalore in 2004, after the 23-year-old Michael Clarke had made a fizzing century on debut for Australia, team-mate Darren Lehmann declared he should play every Test for the next ten years, even if it meant forfeiting his own place. At Brisbane six years later, when Clarke stood in as one-day skipper against England, he became the first Australian captain in living memory to be booed by a home crowd. In 2012, he passed 200 four times in Tests, a feat not achieved even by Don Bradman - and the hallelujahs rang out.
Excitement, disappointment, re-endearment, respect: this is the not uncommon J-curve for a major cricketer. In Clarke, the plotted points read something like this: infatuation, disillusionment, rehabilitation and, last year, awe. It is a capital J-curve, exaggerated in proportion to his talent.
Clarke arrived with a gift, but in public estimation then acquired baggage, and has taken until recently to shed it. Like Steve Waugh, he is from Sydney's unpretentious western suburbs. Unlike Waugh, he was seen to develop pretensions - glamour girlfriend, fast car, endorsements portfolio - until it seemed Australia saw more of him straddling the centrefold crease than the batting crease. In a country in which the buzzword for two decades or more has been aspiration, this would not have mattered, except it led to a presumption that he was neglecting his cricket and squandering his privilege.
Clarke's rise coincided with Australia's decline. This made him an easy scapegoat, most acutely at the end of the 2010-11 Ashes fiasco. When a dressing-room altercation two years earlier with the flinty Simon Katich finally became known, the public sided with Katich, believing the scrapper had taken the pretty boy down a notch. And when Clarke decamped briefly from a tour of New Zealand to deal with the break-up of his relationship, the late Peter Roebuck tore strips off him for dereliction of duty.
In Cricket Australia's high office, Clarke was thought to lack the necessary gravitas. To this day, it is hard to imagine him delivering a Bradman-style dissertation, or even a Mark Taylor-style reflection. He speaks plentifully, but with a side-of-the-mouth tic, and an almost perverse resolve to stick to the team-first dictum, even when a little personal elaboration would cause no offence. He is no one's idea of a statesman.
But nor is he the shallow and indolent playboy of popular imagination. He works hard at his game; the legacy is a chronically sore back. He spurned the modern cynosure of the Indian Premier League at its formation to stay home with his ill father. When he suspected Twenty20 was retarding his development, he gave it away at international level altogether. Fortified, Clarke began to answer critics and doubters in the only idiom he knew: runs, runs, and more runs.
In Clarke's batting maturity, five precepts are evident. The first is range. With an unerring eye, he affronts the ball on the rise as assuredly as anyone can ever have done. Yet he also plays so late that bowlers and slips throw up their hands in anticipation of the lbw that rarely comes. For bowlers, there is almost no margin for error; for Clarke, a repertoire lacking only the hook shot.
The second is the natural's gift of timing. Late in 2012 against Sri Lanka, while hampered by injury at Hobart and Melbourne, he would stab down on yorkers with no thought other than of survival, yet still the ball would squirt from his bat like a pip from an orange.
The third is a delightfully twinkle-toed approach to spin bowling, so at odds with the modern modus of swatting from the crease.
|Clarke quickly revealed himself as an intuitive and adventurous leader in the Taylor mould. Never, if he can help it, does he let a match stand still, or simply run its course|
The fourth is temperament. He is capable of batting for hours and days at a consistent tempo, through lulls, beyond spurts and notwithstanding scares. Sometimes, even when compiling an enormous score, he looks oddly vulnerable, almost inept, particularly to bowling aimed at his head. But he shrugs off these moments as he might flies, regards a gram of luck as the reasonable corollary of kilograms of estimable batting, and his innings rolls on.
The fifth, encompassing all four, is strength of character, irreconcilable with his erstwhile image, but now undeniable. Immediately on returning to New Zealand after sorting out his domestic crisis, he answered the howling reproof with a century.
In the wake of the Ashes, Clarke replaced Ricky Ponting as Test captain and, as Australian cricket modernised, he was made a selector too. This imposed on him a heft of responsibility few previous captains have had to bear, liable to crush a faint mind. His stream of runs increased to an outpouring. In his first 21 matches in charge, he averaged 69, with eight hundreds.
Moreover, he quickly revealed himself as an intuitive and adventurous leader in the Taylor mould. Never, if he can help it, does he let a match stand still, or simply run its course. He makes judicious declarations, sets designer fields, rotates bowlers often, and is unafraid to tear up the rulebook, trusting instead in his instinct. When trying to bowl out stubborn Sri Lanka at Hobart, he gave an over to wicketkeeper Matthew Wade. In the bald context of this essay, perhaps that sounds gimmicky. In the match, it altered the rhythms. Australia won.
In 2012, we witnessed a full flowering of the lavish batting talent announced so spectacularly all those years ago in Bangalore. The year began with 329 not out against India, the biggest Test innings ever played at the SCG, curtailed only by his own declaration, with Bradman's (and Taylor's) 334 one hit away.
Even then, some suspected he was playing for public favour. A double-century followed at Adelaide before, at the start of the 2012-13 season, free-hitting back-to-back doubles against South Africa. He rounded off the year with his first century in a Boxing Day Test, against Sri Lanka, compiled while nursing a pinched hamstring that reduced him to walking between the wickets, but made no appreciable difference to the sweetness of his strokeplay. His score, 106, was also his calendar-year average; only Bradman, Sobers and Ponting before him had reached New Year's Eve on such a plane. And his 2012 Test aggregate of 1,595 placed him nearly 350 runs clear of his nearest rival, Alastair Cook.
As 2013 began, Clarke deserved to feel content: all the caps fitted. He was 31 - prime batting age - rich in form and circumstance, with a low-profile wife and few of his old affectations. He had earned rave reviews as a batsman and captain; under him, an experimental Australian team had lost only one of seven series, to top-ranked South Africa. The ambivalence of public and critics was forgotten, except in one detail: a perception that he should bat higher than No. 5. While an in-form Ponting was ahead of him, it didn't matter, but a succession of greenhorns had since been exposed. Clarke could reasonably answer that it had been decades since the best batsman axiomatically arrived at No. 3. But No. 4 seemed sensible.
Still, mountains loomed. The retirements of Ponting and Mike Hussey a month apart left Clarke as the only fixture in Australia's batting order, isolating him as no one had been since Allan Border, and imposing on him an Atlas-size burden, as a still-insubstantial team contemplated two Ashes series. Though his own man as captain, he depended on Ponting for almost grandfatherly support; that is gone. More even than Ponting ever was, Clarke is both captain and batting fulcrum. And it looks like being the making of him.