A Pup Theory

Posted on August 7, 2011

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By SB Tang

In less than a month’s time, Michael Clarke will lead Australia in his first Test match as full-time captain. At the time of his appointment as Australia’s 43rd Test captain on 30 March 2011, following Ricky Ponting’s resignation in the aftermath of Australia’s first three-innings-defeat home Test series loss in 134 years of Test cricket, Clarke was, on paper at least, the archetypal heir apparent — 29 years of age and an accomplished and experienced middle-order Test batsman with 4742 Test runs (at a healthy average of 46.49) to his name and a strong captaincy record at international level in the shorter forms of the game (18 wins and 6 losses in one-dayers; 12 wins, 4 losses, 1 tie and 1 no result in T20Is, including Australia’s best ever result in a T20I World Cup — runners-up to England in 2010).

The reality was that he wasn’t just the obvious choice; he was the only viable one in a team populated primarily by players at opposite ends of the age-experience spectrum with nothing much in between. This was illustrated by the fact that the main alternative candidates floated in the Australian media at the beginning of the last Australian summer — Marcus North and Simon Katich — have both been subsequently dropped (the formerly justly, the latter unjustly), not just from the Test XI, but from Cricket Australia’s national contract list altogether.

This then seems an apposite time to ask — why does a seemingly substantial proportion of the Australian public and the Australian cricketing fraternity appear vehemently opposed to the very idea of Clarke as captain?

First, let’s look off the field — the obvious reason which springs to mind is the Tall Poppy Syndrome. By way of explanation for any non-Australian readers, this is an oft-cited Australian cultural term which refers to an alleged tendency on the part of the Australian media and general public to cut down tall poppies, namely, people who accrue excessive fame and/or wealth and particularly those who do so overnight. The most common explanation for the syndrome is that Australia is a self-described egalitarian nation which is consequently suspicious of individual excess and the inequality that entails.

Clarke would appear to neatly fit the classic definition of a tall poppy. Even before he’d made his Test debut, he’d already signed “the biggest sporting-brand sponsorship deal in Australian cricket history” and was driving around in a BMW convertible. Before long, he was dating then engaged to Australia’s most well-known glamour model and modelling men’s underwear himself. He has tattoos. He wears ear-rings.

However, the problem with the Tall Poppy Syndrome explanation for Clarke’s apparent unpopularity is that many other (immensely popular) modern Australian cricketers also satisfy the definition of a tall poppy.

Dean Jones’s then landmark sponsorship deal with Kookaburra in the late 80s never affected his hero status. Even today, his axing from the Australian side is still remembered as premature and unjust, particularly in his home state of Victoria.

Michael Slater was a popular player and remains a popular TV commentator despite a penchant for Ferraris early in his career.

Shane Warne’s endorsement of everything from Advanced Hair hair replacement therapy to Nicorette nicotine-substitute patches — not to mention his catalogue of well-publicised extra-marital dalliances and acceptance of cash from subcontinental bookmakers in exchange for pitch and weather information — have never substantially affected his standing in the eyes of the Australian public. Indeed, for my generation, Warnie’s tireless promotion of Advanced Hair’s “strand by strand” hair replacement technology is now as part of the fabric of the Australian summer as the sight of Richie Benaud in a cream blazer.

So Clarke’s accruement of wealth and enjoyment of the trappings of fame seem unlikely to constitute an adequate explanation for his apparent unpopularity with the Australian public given that the most popular Australian cricketer of the past two decades engaged in similar conduct from the beginning to the end of his career.

What about on the field then? Maybe Clarke’s performed poorly as a batsman at key moments in big matches? Or maybe he hasn’t batted well enough in the series which really matter? Or maybe he just hasn’t got going when the going’s gotten tough?

Nope — not one of these hypothetical charges is supported by the empirical evidence.

Clarke’s sparkling 151 on Test debut against India in October 2004 helped Australia to its first Test series win in India in 35 years thereby conquering the last remaining frontier for the great Australian team of 1995 to 2007.

Even on the very rare occasion when that great Australian side lost, most notably in England in 2005, Clarke performed relatively well — his second innings 91 and 155 run partnership with Damien Martyn at Lord’s helped set the Australians up for their solitary Test win in that series and his series average of 37.22, whilst mediocre compared to his current career average of 46.49, ranked him third in Australia’s batting averages for that series and was higher than that of more illustrious compatriots Hayden, Martyn and Gilchrist.

His recall to the Australian Test XI was a substantial factor in Australia’s ruthless whitewashing of England in 2006–07. He averaged 77.80 for the series and stood up in the big moments. His 124 in Australia’s first innings in Adelaide helped eliminate any realistic prospect of defeat when the series was still delicately poised with Australia only 1-0 up and England in the ascendancy in the Second Test, and set the platform for Australia to conjure up a famous victory from the limp embers of a seemingly inevitable draw. His calm unbeaten 21 in the second innings was instrumental in making the impossible a nightmarish reality for the shell-shocked English tourists. His top score of a rapid and unbeaten 135 in Australia’s second innings in the Third Test at the WACA was invaluable in giving his bowlers the time and the runs to comfortably bowl out the English to reclaim the Ashes at the earliest possible opportunity.

He was Australia’s best batsman in the 2009 Ashes series defeat in England, topping the team batting charts with an average of 64.00 and crucial knocks of 103 not out at Edgbaston, which saved the Third Test with Australia already 1-0 down in the series, and a brisk 93 in challenging batting conditions at Headingley, which set Australia up for their solitary Test win in the series.

Australia has won 9 of the 14 Tests in which he’s scored a hundred.  

However, there is one legitimate, albeit very specific, charge which can be levelled against Clarke’s on-field performance — his brain fades just before the end of a session in big Test matches which result in him getting out to an innocuous delivery when well-set. The most recent and painful example would be his dismissal for 80 to the part-time off-spin of Kevin Pietersen just before the close of play on the fourth day in Adelaide in 2010 as Australia was fighting to save the Second Test with the series evenly poised at 0-0. But even this one well-evidenced charge implicitly contains a back-handed compliment, namely, that even when Clarke fails in big matches, he’s been good enough to get to 80-odd, which is a failing ordinary Test batsmen would love to have on their CVs.

Let’s look more closely then at his off-field conduct. As Jarrod Kimber pointed out, Clarke’s an odd figure to hate because he’s “bland” and “does everything he can to not get involved in controversy”. But therein lies what I believe to be the true, underlying cultural cause of Clarke’s apparent unpopularity — he’s seen as a fake, a “try hard” in Australian schoolyard parlance; a far worse sin than merely being a tall poppy.

He had a manager before he was even a regular in the Australian Test side. From the very outset of his career, he’s taken great care to dot his I’s and cross his T’s and establish himself as a favourite of the establishment. However, by so conspicuously straining to always do things by the book, Clarke has come off looking synthesised to an Australian public which loves its cricketing heroes honest, raw, gritty and bluntly spoken — think Ian Chappell, Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.

Two salient illustrations of Clarke’s image-anxiety spring to mind.

Clarke is a passionate and lifelong Wests Tigers fan. Nothing unusual or wrong about that given that he was born and bred in Sydney’s working-class west. However, in 2008, he, or more precisely his management team, refused to allow him to be photographed with Wests Tigers superstars Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah on the grounds that being photographed with rugby league players could adversely affect his public image.

By contrast, Steve Waugh never hid his love of association football at a time when it was still derided in some parts of Australia as a game played by “Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters”, and Ricky Ponting has never hidden his love of dog-racing (which earned him his nickname of “Punter”) despite its distinctly working-class hue.

The second example is the now infamous dressing room incident with Simon Katich after Australia’s victory over South Africa in the January 2009 SCG Test. The incident boiled down to a disagreement over the observance of one of the cherished rituals of the Australian cricket team — the singing of the team song, Under the Southern Cross I Stand, following a victory. Tradition has it that one member of the team is appointed custodian of the song. It is he who has the honour of leading the team in the song and it is he who possesses the power to decide when it is sung. In January 2009, the holder of that office was Mike Hussey. It seems that Clarke attempted to cajole Hussey to sing the song early so that the team could leave the dressing room in time for a team dinner he’d arranged with family and friends (including Clarke’s then fiancée, Lara Bingle). Katich told Clarke, his vice-captain, to “f**k off”. Clarke responded by telling Katich not to swear at him. Katich then grabbed Clarke by the throat and the two had to be physically separated by teammates.

Now, I’m a massive Katich fan and a proud supporter of the campaign to restore him to the Test XI. Nonetheless, I would readily concede that, no matter the degree of verbal provocation, it is not acceptable to grab your vice-captain, or any fellow citizen for that matter, by the throat. It should be noted that, to the credit of both Clarke and Katich, they spoke directly to one another soon after the incident to quickly and quietly settle the matter in private.

But that doesn’t explain why, after the incident was made public, polls consistently showed that a vast majority of the Australian public supported Katich. After all, if you asked an ordinary Australian on the street whether, even in response to verbal provocation, it was acceptable to grab a fellow citizen, much less a superior at work, by the throat, the answer would be “no”.

The answer is that Katich is rightly seen as a genuine bloke — which is what counts in the eyes of the Australian public. Like all genuine blokes, he’s not perfect and his flaw is an at times short fuse. Clearly, grabbing another human being by the throat was wrong. But he accepted responsibility for his wrongful conduct and was man enough to speak directly to Clarke to quickly resolve the matter. And his actions, although disproportionate and wrongful, were taken in defence of values cherished by all Australians — mateship and team spirit.

By contrast, Clarke is, for the reasons set out above, perceived to be a try hard and a fake.

In truth, Michael Clarke may well be, and probably is, a good bloke — it’s just hard for us to tell behind that professionally crafted media facade.

My completely unsolicited armchair advice is that he just needs to convince Australia that he’s a genuine bloke, not even necessarily a top bloke. Stop trying to look perfect, and just be himself. Who knows, people may actually like the man beneath the carefully constructed public persona. After all, there seems to be plenty of evidence to indicate that that person is a thoroughly decent human being who gives generously and quietly to charity, never misses his junior cricket club’s breakfast, and is renowned for his generosity and loyalty towards his family and friends.

What’s the worst that could happen? Even if the Australian public decide that they don’t like the real Michael Clarke, it’s still better to be disliked for who you are, than be ridiculed for an artificial image constructed by a battalion of overpaid professional minders. At the end of the day, you’re living your childhood dream. Even if you got hit by a bus tomorrow, you’d be remembered as a very fine Test batsman. If people dislike you for who you are, then so be it.