Michael Clarke: The Cricket Captain Modern Australia No Longer Deserves

Posted on March 10, 2014

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Here’s my piece for The Guardian titled, “Michael Clarke is the cricket captain modern Australia doesn’t deserve“.

Please see below for my director’s cut of the piece, published with the kind permission of the The Guardian.

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Fifteen per cent. That’s an approval rating that would’ve even made the then Leader of the Opposition Alexander Downer blush in the Ashes summer of 1994–95. Downer’s approval rating never did hit 15 per cent, but, in the Ashes summer of 2010–11, Michael Clarke’s did — a December 2010 opinion poll revealed that “only 15 per cent” of respondents wanted the 29-year-old Clarke, the then Australian vice-captain and long-time heir apparent, to become the captain of the Australian cricket team. The fact that the opinion poll was of readers of The Daily Telegraph, a Sydney-based tabloid whose readers are typically about as partial towards New South Welsh cricketers as Mike Gatting was towards cheese sandwiches, must have made the statistic doubly difficult for Clarke, born-and-bred in Sydney’s working-class west, to comprehend.

So bad did things get for Clarke that Ashes summer, he was even booed to the crease — by Australian fans on Australian soil — when he walked out to bat in a one-day international against England at the Gabba in late January 2011. Clarke, in the midst of an ill-timed, severe form slump during a summer that history will record as modern Australian cricket’s aestas horribilis, responded with a fluent, match-winning and series-clinching 54 off 74 balls. He was applauded as he walked off.

The last Australian batsman to be booed to the crease by his fellow Australians on Australian soil was Mark Waugh at the Adelaide Oval in the Ashes summer of 1998–99. The Australian spectators booed him for a very specific reason — it had just been publicly revealed that, four years earlier, he’d accepted money from an Indian bookmaker in exchange for pitch and weather information.

Clarke, by contrast, had done no such, or even remotely similar, thing. The day before the game in which he was booed to the crease, Clarke walked a group of under-9s from a Brisbane club side onto the Gabba and spent time with them. The day before that, he spent time with schoolchildren affected by the Queensland floods. Two years earlier, it had been Clarke’s idea, not Cricket Australia’s, for the Australian team to visit the victims of the Victorian bushfires. We know this because his then captain, Ricky Ponting, recently told us so in his autobiography.

Earlier this summer, Clarke was roundly applauded by a crowd of 38,068 when he walked out to bat during a one-dayer against England at the MCG, having just led an unfancied, inexperienced Australian side to a glorious 5-0 Ashes whitewash at home.

One might be tempted then to believe that Clarke’s relationship with the modern Australian public has now turned full circle.

I don’t.

I believe that Clarke has not been, and in all likelihood never will be, truly universally embraced by the Australian public in the same fashion that his immediate predecessors — Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Mark Taylor and Allan Border — were. That unfortunate state of affairs is in no way Clarke’s fault, but it does tell us something about the modern Australian public that he faithfully serves.

A few Saturday nights ago, as Australia played the world’s number one ranked Test side, South Africa, in Port Elizabeth in the second Test of a three Test series, I abruptly found myself — for reasons too mundane to delve into here — alone in an inner northern suburb of Melbourne, sans internet, smartphone and Foxtel. Thus, my only chance of watching Test cricket that evening lay in finding a local establishment that had FoxSports.

As luck would have it, the very first pub that I encountered did have FoxSports. On the outside, the pub was an old-fashioned affair, occupying the ground-floor of a three-storey Victorian building which stands at a crossroads. On the inside, the pub was a curious, mildly dissociative entity. It was split into two rooms on either side of a horseshoe bar. The larger half was pure hipster, playing host to a large live audience listening to an all-girl string ensemble on stage. Skinny jeans and funny hats were in abundance. The smaller half reminded me of the kind of place which, for better or worse, is now close to extinct in Melbourne — where the carpets are sticky, the tables are stickier still, and it always seems like there’s a TV, permanently tuned to Sky Racing, mounted right above your head.

It was in this smaller half of the pub that I found a large, flat-screen TV showing the Test on FoxSports and about five other patrons, all of them male, Caucasian and aged in excess of 40. I ordered my pint, found myself a seat in front of the telly at edge of the horseshoe and tried to enjoy the Test.

The running commentary provided by the other patrons made that somewhat difficult.

It was the afternoon session of the third day of the Test and, South Africa, with a 177 run first-innings lead in hand, were cruising in their second-innings. Hashim Amla was on his way to his 21st Test hundred, caressing the ball to all parts with the balletic grace that has become his trade mark, and South Africa were on their way to a comprehensive 231 run victory that would square the series 1-1, with one Test to play. By that late stage in the proceedings, there was nothing that Clarke could’ve done to change the result.

The defeat was Australia’s first in six Test matches and was inflicted by the world’s number one ranked side in their own backyard. Australia’s lethal pace battery had been nullified by the combination of a true, airport-baggage-carousel-slow Port Elizabeth pitch and fatigue that was the inevitable result of playing back-to-back Tests immediately after a five Test home summer. Yet, the sole and exclusive focus of the running commentary provided by my fellow Australian patrons was one man: Michael John Clarke.

As the South African camera crew, taking a rare and momentary break from their seemingly eternal search for feminine beauty in the crowd, focused on Clarke at first slip, one patron announced proudly in a tone that brooked no dissent: “I’ve always hated Clarke.”

“Look at him,” chimed in another, “smiling away when we’re losing. What’s he got to be smiling about? We’re losing the Test.”

“He never scores runs when the team needs it”, asserted vitriolic man number three. He could not be any more untruthful.

Clarke has, from the very moment that he made his Test debut as a 23-year-old in Bangalore in October 2004, scored runs when the team needs it — in live Tests when series are on the line. Coming in at 4/149, Clarke scored 151 on debut in the first innings of the first Test of a four match series in a country where Australia had not won a Test series in 35 long years. His ton was not only match-winning, but series-defining, putting Australia in a position from which they were able to seal the series win at the earliest possible opportunity — at the conclusion of the third Test in Nagpur, which Australia won by 342 runs to secure an unassailable 2-0 series lead.

Clarke’s performance in his debut Test series was a portent of the good things to come: his level of performance in the live Tests (376 runs at an average of 75.2) far exceeded his level of performance in the dead rubbers (24 runs at an average of 12). This virtuous disparity has been no less evident in his recent record. Since the 2013 Ashes in England, in live rubbers, Clarke has scored 871 runs at an average of 58.07, including four centuries, three of which were match-winning and the fourth of which would have been but for the English weather. In dead rubbers, he has scored just 94 runs at an average of 15.67.

Thus, contrary to what vitriolic man number three in the pub seemed to fervently believe, Clarke has always scored runs when the team needs it and continues to do so. Indeed, the truthful criticism that could levelled at Clarke is that he only scores runs when the team needs it and, whether consciously or not, rests his famously degenerative back once a Test series has been decided.

Of course, I wanted to refer to the aforementioned empirical evidence as I sat there in the pub past midnight, listening to untruth after untruth being uttered about the Australian captain. But I also wanted to watch the Port Elizabeth Test and keep my skull intact.

Thus, I said nothing as a fourth vitriolic man entered the conversation with yet another blatant untruth: “That Clarke was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” In fact, Clarke was born and bred in Sydney’s working-class west and dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to pursue his dream of playing Test cricket for Australia. He took a job at the Kingsgrove Sports Centre and caught the 5:30am train there every morning so that he could fit in two hours of net practice before starting work.

The final untruth uttered about Clarke on that Saturday night was perhaps the most revealing, tinged as it was with more than a hint of envy: “He thinks he’s good because he’s fucked a supermodel. So what.” Although Clarke was once engaged to Lara Bingle, a lady whose official website describes her as “one of Australia’s best known models and media personalities”, and is now happily married to Kyly Clarke, née Boldy, a professional model, actress, presenter and interior designer, neither lady could accurately be described as a “supermodel”, a term generally reserved for professionals with “a worldwide reputation and often a background in haute couture and commercial modeling.

It was the late, great Ray Robinson who observed, nearly three decades ago, that Australia’s cricket captains were “the first Australians to give Australia an identity.” As such, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, in addition to being symbols of Australianness, the relationship between Australia’s cricket captains and the Australian society that produced them can tell us something about the latter.

Michael Clarke has, from the very moment he slipped on a baggy green for the first time nearly a decade ago now, consistently upheld many of the finest virtues of Australia’s rich cricketing history — an attacking batsman of humble origins who scores his runs quickly when his team most needs them and fearlessly uses his feet to the spinners; and an aggressive, creative, tactically astute and agile captain who attacks at every opportunity, oftentimes in unorthodox fashion (such as the deployment of the leg-slip that snared the vital wicket of JP Duminy on the triumphant final day of the third Test in Cape Town), and is unafraid to risk losing Test matches in order to win them.

Clarke’s only deviations from the historical ideal of an Australian cricket captain have been purely cosmetic in nature — the tattoos, the BMW convertible, “the biggest sporting-brand sponsorship deal in Australian cricket history” signed before he’d played a single Test, and the glamour model fiancée. Yet, he has been damned, like no Australian captain before, for those cosmetic sins by a significant segment of the Australian public.

The fact that he has been damned not for what he’s done or who he in substance is, but rather what he looks like and who he is wrongly perceived to be, is perhaps a reflection of the increasingly cosmetically-inclined nation that he lives in, where it sometimes seems as if reality no longer aligns with self-perception. It is a nation that seems ill at ease with itself — where everybody seems to watch reality cooking shows, but hardly anyone actually cooks at home; where most people say that they still believe in the traditional virtues of tolerance and a fair go for all, but many seem to have little objection to government policies that have allowed at least one asylum seeker in Australia’s care to be beaten to death in an off-shore detention centre.

In such an age, Michael Clarke is the Australian cricket captain that, perhaps, Australia no longer deserves.

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