Seen that photo of Shane Watson and Michael Clarke arm-in-arm? No it’s not a joke. There really is one – taken after the team’s historic 3-0 Ashes win at the WACA.
For me, it’s the most telling shot of the series, if you’ll forgive the pun.
The smaller man has his arm around the bigger man, and looks up at him with an expression of respect. The bigger man seems to receive the gesture with affection, and manages to look down while maintaining respect in equal measure.
It’s a description that might just as readily remind you of that iconic Australian sporting photograph – ‘The Gladiators’ with Norm Provan and Arthur Summons.
That photo hangs in the national portrait gallery – such is its meaning to the country.
The image of the two opposing captains after the 1963 rugby league grand final has also been immortalised in bronze, as the trophy received by the NRL premiers.
Men all over Australia – no matter how tough – will readily tell you that that image touches them in a way very few things do.
For it goes beyond sport. In fact it reaches beyond even the slings and arrows of our own outrageous fortunes. As sport is every now and then capable of doing, it talks to a greater truth. That what unites us is greater than what divides us.
The two figures in The Gladiators are almost caricatured opposites.
And yet, they stand together in harmony – having given their all, and the mutual respect that battle will create among survivors. It matters less in the final wash-up which side you were on, simply that you were there.
Those same feelings surge their way under one’s breastbone with the Watson and Clarke shot.
For while they have long been on the same side, they have been at odds their whole career. And with their long history of antipathy, it’s often seemed that there was more that divided them than the baggy green that united them.
They appear men cut from very different cloths. Watson looks a lad who’s had most things come to him, and can’t quite fathom it when they don’t.
Clarke appears the opposite, expecting nothing – not even for people to like him – but ready to work harder than anyone to reach his clearly defined goals. One a freakish talent, the other freakishly devoted.
They were never likely to get along.
The pointed difference in temperaments was highlighted by the ‘Homeworkgate’ affair – Clarke being among those who sat in judgement of Watson not handing in a paper on team improvement by the allotted hour, and deeming him unfit to take the field next match.
It was stated publicly as a reinforcement of standards, a drawing of a line in the sand. And that seems a particularly ‘Clarke’ thing to do – expecting 100% commitment and effort – above and beyond whatever value you already have for the team.
Clarke’s position on teamwork is almost military: You owe it to everyone to be trying your absolute best, and giving the team objectives all of your focus.
Just ask Andrew Symonds – it was Clarke’s similar take on his missing a team meeting for a fishing trip that saw him dropped, and choose to no longer continue his previously close friendship with the upstart Pup.
It would be understandable if a laconic Queenslander like Watson (and Symonds for that matter) saw Clarke as a bit of a stiff.
A party pooper. A teacher’s pet.
And I imagine it was something along the lines of wanting to highlight this to the rest of the team that created the open hostility between the pair that led to Homeworkgate, and Clarke’s branding of Watson as a ‘cancer’ within the team.
The pair’s differences were indeed so well documented that only weeks ago it would have been hard to imagine this embrace ever taking place – even in victory.
And so this image, so perfectly captured by Phil Hillyard for News Limited, captures something significant about the change in mood in the Australian dressing room.
The body language suggests a considerable rapprochement between two old foes. Nothing like a three-nil sweep in the Ashes to build a few bridges, of course, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think the two men have genuinely made a step towards the other.
The first thing that’s clear is that Watson has realised who’s boss, and decided to pull his head in and push his oar out.
The language coming from him all series has been that of a man toeing the party line. He’s suddenly an all-rounder again, knows he needs to score big first-innings hundreds, and is full of praise for his skipper. A team man at last!
And as much as Watson has tightened up his act, Clarke has clearly loosened up a bit.
One of the most interesting subtleties of the photo is Captain Clarke not only wearing a baseball cap (rather than the baggy green or wide-brimmer), but wearing it backwards!
He seems to be saying, I can be one of the lads too. There’s a time for Captain Perfectionist, and there’s a time for letting the hair down.
Both men appear to have grown considerably.
It’s one of sports great delights that it throws up magical moments with quite some frequency – and sometimes, those quintessential half-seconds are captured by the camera shutter.
Very occasionally, those magical moments don’t even happen inside the period of play, but in its receding glow.
There is Provan and Summons of course, so many years ago.
There is Cathy Freeman sitting on the track after winning the 400m final at the Sydney Olympics, being comforted by a vanquished opponent.
And in terms of cricket, we need only think back to 2005, with Andrew Flintoff commiserating a crestfallen Brett Lee, who’d fallen just two runs short of an unlikely victory.
What makes these iconic images so special is that they capture rivalry being overcome by humanity, enmity losing out to empathy, and difference giving way to unity.
And while both Watson and Clarke have long been playing in the same uniform, to see them at last become teammates is perhaps just as poignant. Just as powerful. And just as meaningful for the future of Australian cricket.