Two sporting events of the past fortnight set in motion a train of thought I hadn't had in a while. The first of those events was the Test retirement of Australian captain Michael Clarke, after as miserable an Ashes campaign as any batsman or captain could imagine. The other was the death of Frank Gifford, the New York Giants footballer and subject of Frederick Exley's genre-bending "fictional memoir" A Fan's Notes.
I haven't read Exley's book in a few years but know I loved it when I did, reading it twice on end to savour it. It's made up of the confessions of a man struggling with his own weaknesses. Exley tended to channel life's complexities through sport, a realm in which there were fewer grey areas. To him Gifford was a kind of avatar and explanation for his occasional triumphs but mostly for his extended troughs of suffering.
The star player in Exley's favourite team, Gifford was a man the writer had briefly encountered but never befriended as a college classmate and then developed a complicated, lifelong fan-athlete relationship with, a complicated dynamic that can't have ever been expressed more poignantly. Exley wrote other books but none was anywhere near as good or more widely appreciated than A Fan's Notes. His life was one gradual slide into sadness and obscurity from the minute it was published.
I couldn't claim to feel with the same intensity as Exley in what I feel about Clarke, but in the back of my mind is this feeling that he was in many ways representative of my generation of Australian men. He's the only Australian captain of approximately the same age as myself, for starters, and for want of a better term we "came of age" at the same time, entering our own versions of the adult world in dissimilar but coinciding manners.
I didn't entirely trust Clarke when he was handed the Australian captaincy and I didn't entirely trust myself to make a mortgage payment every month. We've both seemed to get it done, though
The criticisms levelled at Clarke over the years are so hackneyed and overwrought as to be not worth mentioning at this point, but I'd guess there's a huge overlap in the qualities most ascribed to him (vanity, petulance, impatience, naked individualism, gauche materialism) and those attributed to the wider generation of Australian men to which he and I belong. It's not a perfect sample size, but sport and life rarely dovetail flawlessly.
The personal overlaps are superficial but worthy of mention for the sake of an argument. When teenage Clarke's face beamed from the catalogue for Harry Solomons' famous Kingsgrove Sports Centre - where Clarke worked packing bats as a junior batting prodigy - I still thumbed its pages excitedly, hoping to spot the bat that would ensure a big summer. As Clarke emerged from the ODI side and started to flourish in Test cricket, I graduated from university and entered the real world of full-time work. His best summers seemed to coincide with favourites of mine. Clarke's captaincy and growth into responsibility came as I settled down, cohabited, got engaged, bought a house - all of the life stuff that seems big and scary until it's just your everyday reality. I didn't entirely trust Clarke when he was handed the Australian captaincy and I didn't entirely trust myself to make a mortgage payment every month. We've both seemed to get it done, though.
Sports fans always prattle on about these sorts of things and there's surely no fan-athlete conversation more painful than the bloke (and let's be honest, it's almost always men) who corners his hero to explain how important a certain performance of theirs was and where it sat in the scheme of their life. I guess I'm not quite that bad. It's all just a matter of timing too, not fate or some deeper connection. "There's concurrence, but no congruence" is how writer Daniel Harris so deftly put it.
The truth is that these personal links we imagine ourselves to have established with sportspeople are deeply flawed ones, more so now than at any other point in the history of sports. As Clarke was granted a reported A$500,000 a year to endorse a certain brand of bat, I found myself wondering whether such corporate largesse played some part in the fact that a top-of-the-range blade for me - the definition of an amateur - had suddenly climbed north of $700. When Clarke and I were kids, $295 would have got you the Rolls Royce of bats, the same one Michael Slater used.
Then there's the wage comparison, not the fault of Clarke or his sports-star colleagues but now such an insane disparity that you could make a far more exaggerated version of Trading Places where an average punter swapped lives with, say, Wayne Rooney, and found the experience closer to living on a different planet than enjoying a higher pay grade.
What Clarke actually represents, as the Australian captain closest to my own age, is not any kind of meaningful bond but a historic and unprecedented shift that divides athlete and fan further apart than ever before. This isn't just a question of economics but of the demands of modern celebrity. Weeks after Shane Warne played his first Test he gave myself and some schoolmates a coaching session because that was the sort of thing Test cricketers did to earn a bit of extra cash. When Clarke returned from that rollicking debut Test tour of India he might as well have been parking his Ferrari on the moon.
Athletes and sportspeople like Clarke are now merely the product of irresistible market forces, ones that would make any of us strangers to the concerns of the average fan. They need to distance themselves, in many respects. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to live Clarke's life, hammered by the press and public for years, when he was so far better than other Australian players of his vintage that you almost forgot what generation he belonged to.
So Clarke probably was "my guy", as far as Australian cricketers go, but he also wasn't. Perhaps he wasn't anyone's. You can't imagine that he'll be reducing grown men to jelly when he walks into a room in 30 years' time, like Ian Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh do now. But that shouldn't really matter that much anyway. Perhaps there's a certain narcissism at play when I say it, but I think I'm going to miss him.