Michael Clarke grows into leadership role
Twelve months ago, Michael Clarke was nowhere near the public’s first choice as Australia’s next Test cricket captain.
In the eyes of the public, when Ricky Ponting stepped aside, Clarke wasn’t even in the top three. He was behind Shane Watson, Michael Hussey and even the dropped Simon Katich.
But 12 months is a long-time in professional sport.
Identified as a potential Australian Test captain almost as soon as he debuted for Australia in 2004, Clarke has been on the receiving end ever since from fans who felt that the ‘golden boy’ of Australian cricket was being given a free ride by Cricket Australia into the Test captaincy.
Despite being a mainstay of Australia’s middle order and Ricky Ponting’s vice captain for a number of years, Australian cricket fans felt that Clarke hadn’t properly earned the captaincy like those before him – Waugh, Taylor and Border.
Off the field Clarke was the David Beckham of Australian sport, and for this reason he suffered a case of ‘tall poppy syndrome’. He was the sportsman with the model girlfriend, he sported the latest haircut, was plastered with tattoos and he drove a sports car.
However, when you study the last 12 months carefully, the leadership that Clarke – Australia’s 43rd Test captain – has shown since taking over the reins, has been extremely sound.
His leadership in helping to turn around a bruised and battered Australian team bares similarities with the great Allan Border.
Like Border did in 1984, Clarke has risen to the acute challenge of inheriting a team that was suffering from a crisis of confidence (following the departure of a number of its greatest players and a run of loses) and a lack of player depth.
Clarke is the first captain since Border to inherent a team that included a former Australian captain.
While Kim Hughes only lasted two tests back in 1984 after relinquishing the captaincy to Border, Clarke has faced the continued challenge of putting his stamp on the team despite the ‘white elephant’ that Ponting could have represented in the dressing room.
The fact that this hasn’t occurred is testament to both a gracious and unselfish Ponting and a politically astute Clarke.
In the last 12 months, Clarke’s captaincy record reads as nine victories from 14 Tests.
While this doesn’t scream ‘sensational,’ Clarke’s approach on and off the field has been.
Since April last year, Clarke has helped usher in no less than nine debutants, including Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, David Warner, Ed Cowan and Matthew Wade.
Despite the challenges that Clarke has faced, his first 12 months as a leader will be remembered as aggressive, brave and innovative.
Clarke has led from the front, racking up 1,355 runs at an average just under 60 with the willow.
While his 329 not out against the Indians at the SCG was an obvious highlight, what is even more encouraging is that he has consistently been churning out hundreds, scoring five in total.
Clarke has been well supported with the bat by Michael Hussey (averaging 46) and Ricky Ponting (44), but he can also point to improvements made at the top of the order by the dashing David Warner and his foil, Ed Cowan.
Without doubt, Australia’s greatest improvement of the last 12 months has been with the ball.
Australia’s fast bowlers have really turned up the heat on their opposition, putting in consistently aggressive and disciplined performances – a trait of Clarke’s tenure.
James Pattinson has been phenomenal, while Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus have all experienced renaissances under the Clarke tutelage, following either periods of poor form or lingering question marks over long-term fitness.
Clarke has provided a never-ending source of confidence for Nathan Lyon – who has quickly acclimatised to Test Cricket like no Australian spin bowler has been able to do since Shane Warne retired in 2006.
Lyon, who has still curated more first class wickets than he has played on, seems to have locked down Australia’s number one spin option, thriving on the confidence that Clarke is able to feed him.
It is in the field that Test captains decision making is often found out, and it is here that Clarke has a shown a brilliant knack of bringing on the right bowler at the right time.
In the absence of all-rounder and two-time Allan Border Medalist Shane Watson (who returned during the most recent Test Series in the Caribbean) Clarke has taken a greater responsibility with his left arm orthodox, and has even managed to get crafty bowling spells out of ever-green Test cricketer Michael Hussey and part-time net bowler David Warner – all of whom have chipped in with valuable wickets.
Australia’s field placements have been far more aggressive than they were under Ponting.
This has seemingly led to greater bowler confidence as Clarke consistently sets more fields that encourage disciplined bowling rather than to protect the bad balls. Off the field Clarke has taken great strides in turning around the media’s perception of him, and subsequently the public’s opinion of him.
Clarke has always exuded an incredible calmness with the media.
What used to be attributed as arrogance and being overly media trained just a few years ago is now viewed by many as exuding composure, confidence and self-assuredness – all vital qualities for arguably the second most important job in the country, behind the PM.
Clarke has left no stone unturned in his quest for bettering himself and his team. Upon being announced as captain in March last year Clarke organised a private boot camp at Coffs Harbour.
The point of the training was to make him physically and mentally stronger, which would in turn make Clarke a stronger leader and his team a stronger unit.
Despite a few setbacks – most notably against New Zealand in Hobart and South Africa in Cape Town – it seems to have paid off in spades.
After 12 months at the helm there is no doubt that this revitalised Australian Test cricket team is Clarke’s team, following a leader that is now as popular among the fans as he is among his team mates.