What’s next for Michael Clarke?
Will Michael Clarke's back hold up for the India tour?
Michael Clarke’s career as Australia’s Test captain made a promising start last summer when he led the team to a whitewash of India, including his record breaking triple century in the 100th Test at the SCG.
However, his leadership will be tested in the crucible of an important Test Series against South Africa at home in a couple of months’ time and the resumption of the Ashes battle in the UK in 2013. I expect him to emerge with an enhanced reputation.
MJ Clarke was earmarked for the captaincy from the day he was selected in the Australian Test team, particularly when he demonstrated his talent with the bat by scoring 151 on debut, against spin in India.
His ability was confirmed a month later when he also made a century in his first Test innings on Australian soil. With runs on the board, all that remained was for him to mature and for the incumbent to reach the end of his tenure.
I met Michael during those early months of his playing career. I was seated next to him at an Australian Cricketers Association dinner with a corporate sponsor not long before the team’s departure for the Ashes tour of 2005.
It was obvious that he was being groomed to handle meeting people from different walks of life as part of the preparation for his eventual ascent to the top job.
My impression that evening was of a very polite, well-spoken young man, with a sensible head on his shoulders and a mature outlook on life, who was committed to his sport and to improving his game. I thought that if he could continue to deserve a place in the side, his destiny was to lead it.
When he opened the Ashes tour of 2005 with a classy 91 at Lord’s – almost completing a ‘hat trick’ of centuries on debut in different countries – it seemed a fait accompli that he was in the side for good. But he made only one more decent score – a half century – on that historic tour, then struggled to make runs in the 2005-06 summer at home against the West Indies.
He was dropped after the Hobart Test. Even when recalled for the tour of Bangladesh in early 2006 he didn’t make runs and his Test average declined rapidly to a mere 36.2 by the end of that series. Destiny was on hold!
Around this time he linked up with Lara Bingle. A curious decision, given her controversial history, but as their relationship went on, the two seemed well suited to each other.
Michael was wonderful for Lara and her family during her father’s sad death from cancer. Michael’s batting also recovered and he returned to form for the 2006-07 Ashes whitewash.
It’s not often remembered that he was at the other end during Adam Gilchrist’s amazing 59 ball hundred in the second innings at Perth, making his own quick-fire century with 135 not out from only 164 deliveries.
Destiny was back on track, though Ponting’s success in becoming the first captain since Warwick Armstrong to lead a series whitewash meant it would have to wait a little while yet.
The next few years were mixed as far as leadership aspirations were concerned. Clarke continued to bat well, including under personal adversity. He has described the century he made in the West Indies immediately after Mr Bingle’s passing as one of his best.
That the authorities still had bigger things in mind for him was evident in October 2009 when Clarke was appointed Australia’s Twenty20 captain. However, the Twenty20 team hardly excelled and many commentators questioned whether he really was leadership material after all.
Destiny was further put on hold when Lara started behaving erratically and the relationship was clearly proving a distraction for him. Future captains are not supposed to leave a tour mid-stream to break off an engagement to an air-headed blonde. They aren’t supposed to make television commercials in which they catch tennis balls in their underwear either!
Nor are they supposed to be as inconsistent with the bat as Clarke’s form was turning out to be. Although he made a ton at the Basin Reserve immediately after the break-up with Bingle in March 2010 (another he has mentioned in his personal list of top performances), he had a relatively poor tour of NZ.
He followed that up with low scoring short series against Pakistan and India away, then in the loss at home to Andrew Strauss’s England side.
Once again, many commentators did not think him worthy of retaining a place in the team, let alone taking over the captaincy. Public opinion was not favourable either.
Yet, when Ricky Ponting was injured for the final Test of that doomed Ashes series, Clarke stood in as skipper at the SCG. Although he led Australia to an innings defeat, it was hardly his fault. The stand-in captain was not responsible for the weaknesses of Australia’s bowling stocks in 2010-11.
However, the loss meant that there was far from unanimous support for Clarke to take over should Ricky Ponting be sacked or resign the captaincy. While expressing his personal view that Michael Clarke was the best man for the job, Peter Roebuck said at the time, “a lot of respected thinkers are wary.”
Whatever the weight of public opinion, when Ponting stood down after the Ashes loss, Michael John Clarke became the 43rd captain of Australia’s Test team.
Clarke still needed to succeed, of course, to ensure his tenure as captain wasn’t short-lived. Personal and team success in Sri Lanka was followed by a wonderful ‘Captain’s knock’ in the First Test in South Africa, where Clarke made 151 after coming in with the team in an awkward position at 3-40.
The bowlers then dismissed South Africa for less than a hundred to set up a first innings lead of 188 runs before destiny’s fluctuating fortunes swung to the downside again. Australia followed that fantastic bowling performance with one of the most dismal batting performances in decades, falling for just 47.
There was something positive to come out of that outcome, however. Clarke showed his leadership ability by saying that, despite its quality, his first innings century was of no importance since the team hadn’t won the match.
He was able to get them refocussed for the Second Test, which Australia won despite his personal failure with the bat in that match.
In my view, things were coming together nicely for destiny as 2011 came to a close. Despite the loss to NZ in Hobart, which the visitors deserve all credit for, Clarke was making his mark on the team.
Significantly, under Clarke’s captaincy, Ricky Ponting was starting to get his form back. I think it was Richie Benaud who remarked on the impressive way Clarke handled his relationship with Ponting after replacing him as leader.
Another of Clarke’s marks on the team has been the form of the bowlers. Few were expecting great things of Siddle and Hilfenhaus in the home series against India, but they both delivered. Alongside the young dynamo Pattinson they made for an impressive battery last summer.
Clarke won the ABC’s Alan McGilvray Medal for 2011 because the ABC team recognised his ‘innovative captaincy’.
The first few days of 2012 saw Clarke take a huge step forward as captain. Australia delivered an innings victory over India in a very impressive manner. The team rebounded from 3-37; Ricky Ponting was back to his best in scoring 134; Mr Cricket made a magnificent 150 no; and M J Clarke batted himself into the history books.
All these outcomes showed that Clarke’s leadership was proving itself. When he put his bat down and punched the air twice on reaching 300 I believe he was claiming the captaincy as rightfully his at last. That soon after he declared the innings closed, even with some significant personal milestones just ahead, shows that the team comes first for him.
He was quoted in the press as saying, “don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked to have made 300-odd runs in this Test match, but the most important thing for me now is that we win the Test.” That is, as Mark Taylor pointed out, the stuff of good captaincy.
The team still has room for improvement. It will have Watson back after his injury-shortened season, to provide his all round capability and another strong bat.
I think everyone is looking forward to seeing Pat Cummins and James Pattinson sharing the new ball.
Compared with last season I believe the team needs a better wicket-keeper than Brad Haddin; it needs a quality spinner; and it needs a more reliable Number 3, a position to which I think the captain should move.
When Clarke took over I saw parallels with the Kim Hughes era – a very troubled time for Australian cricket. I think we’ve now leap-frogged ahead and we are at the 21st century equivalent of the Alan Border ascendancy.
Success against South Africa and England over the next 12 months will show that it has been Michael Clarke’s destiny to lead Australia back to the top of world cricket.