Clarke to lead the way against world champion Proteas
Australia will need Michael Clarke to have a big series to have any chance of winning back the Ashes. AP Photo/Rob Griffith
Tomorrow’s first Test at the Gabba sees the start of cricket’s world heavyweight championship. Over the next three weeks – in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth – the coveted world number ranking one will be decided.
Should the incumbent, South Africa come out on top it will further vindicate its recent dominance of the longer form of the game.
However, should the underdog get up, it will be an enormous feather in the cap of Australian cricket and, in particular, current captain Michael Clarke.
Between January 2007 and January 2009, Ricky Ponting’s all-conquering Test team, one of the most powerful outfits in cricket history, was almost totally dismantled.
During that period Australian cricket bade farewell to some of its most iconic Test stars in Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist.
It also witnessed the end of the Test careers of some other pretty handy players including the likes of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Stuart MacGill and Brett Lee.
To look at it another way, in May 2008 when he made his Test debut, Brad Haddin was the 400th player to be accorded the honour of a baggy green.
Tomorrow, Rob Quiney will be the country’s 429th Test player.
That represents 29 players being selected to debut for Australia in the space of the past four-and-a-half years.
Prior to Haddin’s debut, going back to Test player number 371, Andy Bichel, who debuted in January 1997, meant that that cluster of 29 players debuted over a period of 11 years.
It gives a very clear example of the turmoil that Australian cricket has undergone in the past four years.
When Ricky Ponting stood down as Test captain in March last year, Australia (100 points) was fifth in the world behind England (125), South Africa (118), India (117) and Sri Lanka (108).
It was Australia’s lowest point – both by placing and points – for well over a decade.
Enter Michael Clarke.
Having been Ponting’s long term deputy, and one-day skipper, he was the obvious choice to be elevated to the top job.
Many fans however, felt a deal of unease at Clarke being given the reins of the country’s most high profile team.
For the traditionalists, many of whom saw the role as second only to the PM in national importance, couldn’t quite get their head around Clarke as Test captain.
On the field, Clarke had done little wrong to that point of time.
At the time he was anointed by the selectors as Test skipper, he had led Australia in 25 ODIs for a winning record of 74%, just behind the most successful ODI captain of all-time, West Indian Clive Lloyd (76%).
It underlined that he had the goods to be a leader.
However, it was off the field that he seemed to draw the ire of the traditional Australian fan.
He was the first leader who hailed from the Gen Y era and many fans found that a bitter pill to swallow.
He displayed traits that prickled some of the establishment.
He had peroxide hair, a diamond stud in the ear and a canvas of tattoos.
Those traits had the rusted on Test traditionalists shaking their heads – how could an Australian skipper have such a persona?
They had their firm ideas as to what a Test leader should look like – tough as teak, no bling, no flashiness, just straight down the middle.
Imagine Ponting with an earring; Steve Waugh with dyed hair; Ian Chappell or Allan Border with an ear stud.
And then, of course, was his highly publicized and chronicled private life.
Name another skipper who was photographed incessantly with a model on his arm at restaurant openings and cocktail parties?
It was sacrilegious to consider the Test captaincy resting on such a man’s shoulders.
Fast forward though to today.
Clarke has shown himself to be a highly successful and innovative Test captain.
He has elevated Australia to number three in the world and within a series win of reclaiming top spot – something few would have considered possible early last year.
His winning percentage through his first 15 matches as the helm is 60%.
He has shown he is his own man and has often shown a flare that many felt was lacking during the Ponting and Waugh reins.
Like Mark Taylor, he often rolls the dice and acts on instinct.
Think of his use of Mike Hussey with the ball and the crucial wickets he has snared or throwing the ball to David Warner at the Gabba against New Zealand last year where he could have had a wicket first ball save a dropped catch.
Clarke used part-time leg-spinner Warner at the bowling crease in each of the West Indies Tests earlier this year where he claimed three wickets at 31 – would Ponting have done likewise?
Clarke’s exploits with the bat last summer, highlighted by 329no in Sydney and 210 in Adelaide, saw him take the mantle as the team’s premier batsman.
Safe to say, Michael Clarke has silenced the naysayers over the past 18 months.
He has proven he is the man for the job and the man for the time.
The defence rests.
After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.