It was barely a year and a half ago that Michael Clarke was battling with a messy break-up and had to call off a tour to N.Z mid-way. Not surprisingly there were allegations soon after on whether he was tough enough to take on the job of the Australian captaincy. Some were calling him way too “precious” in his mentality to take on what is considered one of the most challenging jobs Down Under. A dip in form against Pakistan and India followed by a horrid run of luck in the all important Ashes meant he had Cricket Australia in a fix on making the call from Punter to Pup.
However, after taking over the reigns Clarke has fought back with vengeance, answered his critics with both runs and results, and ushered in a much-needed breath of fresh air. In his batting he has been nothing short of brilliant, with an average of over fifty in conditions as varied as Sri Lanka, South Africa and now at home in Australia. Striking a hundred in every series, each absolutely crucial to the situation at hand, he has lead from the front a batting order that at times has looked brittle at best.
His hundred at Newlands will go down in the annals of Cricket as one of the greatest knocks in recent years. On a difficult first day pitch where his peers shouldered arms to the pace of the Protease, Clarke rose and met the challenge head on. Coming forward to the moving ball matched exquisitely by his dancer like footwork the Australian captain displayed an array of skill, patience and most importantly mental application rarely seen in batsmen of the modern age. “I remember Shane Warne saying to me years ago that the better the bowling the more positive you have to be” Clarke said explaining what was going through his mind at the time. “That was my attitude today. I knew I was facing a pretty good attack in conditions that were going to do a little bit. But I thought I needed to do something to put a little bit of pressure back on them”. It is a shame the brilliance of Clarke’s 151 will always be penciled in as a side note to what transpired in the second and third innings of the Newlands Test, for the knock exemplified every thing to be appreciated about the man.
He may not look it from the outside but Clarke is a tough nut to crack; after abandoning the ODI side in N.Z and having dragged through one of the most publicized break ups in Australia, he returned to make amends merely a week later, going on to stroke a scintillating 168 in his first innings back. That resilience and mental toughness of course has become a hallmark of Australian captaincy. What sets Clarke apart from his predecessors off yester years is his willingness to gamble and go for the untried route.
Rarely would an Australian captain off late have punted on a bowler like Pat Cummins (with just three first class games under his belt), when there were more experienced hands on deck. The same rings true for the recently concluded Brisbane Test, but for Clarke there wasn’t even a second thought.
“I don’t think the inexperience matters too much. It brings excitement to the game. I’ve never had any concerns about young guys getting their first opportunity and always feel like they must be given their due sooner rather than later” said the captain of the risky selections. Half the experts and pundits in the commentary box, most of them former captains, were in fits at having to present three Baggy Greens on the same morning. The other half were suspect at best, but all of them had jumped on the Clarke bandwagon and were singing their support by the time James Pattinson finished his three-wicket-over maiden on the fourth morning.
It is not just the off field selections that are noteworthy, Clarke brings a freshness to the way he runs proceedings on the pitch. Rarely is the match seen to meander along when he is in charge. Innovative field settings and ringing in the changes in bowling even when the team seems to be on top have become a trademark of his captaincy. The utilization of Nathan Lyon in the Brisbane Test is a case worth delving into. On a Gabba pitch in heavily overcast conditions that most would have agreed suited pace bowling, Clarke lobbed the ball to the off-spinner in the fist session of the Test! Lyon went on to finish with four in the first innings and an impressive seven for the Test. This was not just a mere rub of the Green for Clarke. He made the move knowing the moisture in the pitch, and the natural nature of the Gabba wicket would provide Lyon with the turn and bounce sufficient to break through the traditionally weak spin Kiwi defense. It is Clarke’s reaction to the aftermath of Lyon’s success though that is commendable, “He will continue to get better,” the captain predicted. “But there will be some tough times. No doubt you will probably see that in Hobart on a flatter wicket and then against India, who are strong against slow bowling. So as long as the expectation from outside stays consistent, I think Gaz (Lyon) will be fine.” In a team that has suffered from a confused mindset towards spin bowlers since the departure of Warne, such a balanced and fresh approach is definitely welcome.
Mike Brearley, whose name will forever be scripted in legend after the 81’ Ashes, stressed on two things for a captain’s success, “a good rapport with the team you lead and a sound cricketing mind”. Clarke comes off well on both these counts. His unyielding support for Ponting, even during the tough times of the latter’s reign, means he could expect the same good-natured backing in return. However as Brearley himself agreed captaincy is easiest when things are rosy with one’s own game, “It is the inevitable dip in form and how a captain juggles that with the pressures of leading the side that determines the true metal of leadership”. Clarke hasn’t had to face that tough bit yet, but a stern test in the shape of India looms in the not too distant future. If history is any measure to go by he has nothing to fear in terms of this mental exam. His batting and captaincy, both a good mixture of aggressive intent and resolute thinking stand him in good stead to tackle any challenges that may lie ahead.
For now Clarke can be proud of what the team has achieved in the short timespan he has been in charge. Triumph in Sri Lanka, who hadn’t lost a series at home in the past five years, a nerve-wracking away come back win against the formidable South Africa , and now a crushing triumph against the Kiwis handling the most inexperienced of Australian line-ups are no mean achievements. Unlike Ponting, and for the most part Steve Waugh, who were handed down immensely talented teams destined to achieve greatness, Clarke has been given the unenviable job of picking up their pieces and starting from scratch. Given his approach of taking the bull by the horns and willingness to shift plagued mindsets, the era of Michael Clarke might just be AB’s second coming.
Originally for All Out Cricket, shorter version can be found here