His journey to the top of world cricket once seemed mapped out in front of him, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
Michael Clarke’s sublime innings of 187 in the third test could not have come at a better time. With England 2-0 up in the series and Australia seemingly in free-fall, it was beginning to look as though the more patriotic England fans predictions were going to be proved right and even those of us with a more pragmatic view were beginning to wonder. Looking at the Australian team prior to the series it was missing the clutch of superstars that have been it’s backbone for so long; the only name that shone boldly was their captain, Michael Clarke.
Born in Sydney in 1981 (what a vintage year that was…), he made his first class debut for New South Wales at 18, his early performances, whilst not earth shattering, were enough to attract the attention of the national team. He made his full international debut in a one-day match against England January 2003, where a useful 39 helped Australia to a win.
His first real starring role came when he made his test debut against India in Bangalore. An away series in India is hardly a cosy introduction to Test cricket, but the young Clarke took it all in his stride, hitting 151 and steering Australia to victory in the match and the series. Just a few weeks later he scored 141 in his home Test debut against New Zealand at Brisbane. His performances, which were aggressive, without being reckless, were already being compared to the greats of Australian cricket.
After such an impressive start, a dip was almost inevitable and unfortunately it coincided with the 2005 Ashes, which saw Australia lose a series against their biggest rivals for the first time since 1987. Clarke was dropped from the Test squad soon after, but not for long. By the time the next Ashes series came around he was back in his groove and played a starring role as Australia won the series 5-0. He then went on to play a solid role as Australia mounted a successful defence of the World Cup in the West Indies.
In 2008 he was made vice captain of the Australian team, his on-field career was only going in one direction, but the storm clouds were gathering. Instead of celebrating him as a working class boy made good, the press and the fans seemed to dislike what they saw as a playboy lifestyle with his model girlfriend and penthouse in Bondi. You could draw comparisons with David Beckham, whose celebrity lifestyle often seemed in danger of overshadowing his sporting career. In both cases the allegation is unfair; Clarke, like Beckham is a hard working professional, who takes his sporting career extremely seriously. He doesn’t drink, he keeps himself in excellent physical condition, and he even gave up playing international T20 cricket so that he could focus on the longer formats of the game.
Clarke was made captain for the final Ashes test in 2011 after Ponting was ruled out through injury, and when Ponting resigned as captain after the 2011 World Cup he was given the role permanently. His style is notably different from Ponting, the man who it seemed had been mentoring him for the job. He’s confident and tactically aware, but not perhaps a dominant leader of men, not yet at least. One distinct characteristic is his willingness to make brave decisions, trying out unusual fields and switching his bowlers around the make sure that the batting side never get the chance to settle.
Clarke has also successfully adapted his own style for test cricket, his performances may have fewer flourishes now, but they are more consistent. His timing and eye for a gap that lesser players would have missed, have helped him grow into one of the worlds greatest batsmen, particularly when facing spin. By 2012 his stars had well and truly aligned, scoring an incredible 4 double centuries in one year, including a magnificent 329 not out against India in Sydney. His performances that year were enough for him to be chosen as Wisden’s Leading Cricketer in the World for 2012.
Clarke’s problem of course, is that he is the best player in an otherwise average team, and his rise to captaincy coincided closely with the retirement of some of the men who had helped Australia gain such a fearsome reputation. As the current test shows, if Australia are going to rescue this series then Clarke will have to lead from the front. His score of 187 could propel Australia back into this series, but it’s still going to be an uphill battle.
Rumours of a fractious relationship with Shane Watson don’t help, and risk, once again, the off field stories dominating the coverage. If Clarke and his Australian team are to somehow emerge from this series with their heads held high then Clarke will have to score a lot more runs, and somehow find a way to inspire his teammates to raise their game. As a captain it will be his greatest challenge, but for it to work, he’ll have no choice but to see it as an opportunity.