Australian sports fans don’t like to single out precisely which qualities their heroes should possess. We have a rich history of athletes with personalities from every cookie-cutter mould in the cupboard.
We loved the showmanship and brashness of Shane Warne just as much as we admired the grit and determination of Steve Waugh, and the all-round nice guy qualities of Pat Rafter.
This begs the question, why has Michael Clarke – as pleasant and genial a sportsman as you are likely to meet – not yet captured the heart of the Australian public and endeared himself to the masses?
There is no doubting Clarke’s prodigious talent as a cricketer. In the past few years he has emerged as one of our premier batsmen, and the numbers reflect Australia’s growing reliance on Clarke as the rock of the middle order. Having been dropped from the Test side in 2005, he didn’t so much remodel as re-jig the nuances of his game and emerged a better, if less spectacular player.
Clarke is all but assured of taking over the captaincy of the national side in all forms of the game once Ricky Ponting departs, and as captain of the Twenty20 outfit he has shown himself to be an enthusiastic and capable on-field leader.
While Clarke goes from strength to strength on the field, his off-field image is lagging by comparison. There is a sense in backyards and bars across Australia that Clarke is too tightly managed and lacks a sense of authenticity. In the past fortnight the conjecture over Clarke’s popularity – or lack thereof – within the Australian cricketing ranks has become a talking point as well.
It is true that the ability to captain a cricket side does not rest on popularity within that side alone, but the whispers are growing that Clarke is genuinely disliked by several of his teammates, which doesn’t auger well for a future Test captain.
One can’t help but feel that all is not as it seems with the Test vice-captain.
Clarke’s problem is this: On the one hand he conveys an everyman appeal – photo shoots playing backyard cricket in his boardies, a keenness to discuss his working class Western Sydney roots, constant talk of the team over the individual.
On the other hand Clarke’s displays of the good life demonstrate he is very clearly not your average man. His penchant for expensive cars and clothes has been well documented, as was his engagement and subsequent split with model Lara Bingle.
More Beckham than Boonie, the image that comes across of Clarke is one of a contrived persona too heavily imbued with media savvy. At times when interviewed Clarke sounds more like a politician than cricketer, all buzz words and speech laden with more spin than Warne and Muralitharan combined.
A torch bearer for the modern paradigm of sportsman he may be, it seems that to avoid being pigeon-holed Clarke has tried to fill every possible mould we might have of what our sports stars should be. In his attempts to cater to the public’s every possible desire of which qualities our heroes should possess, Clarke comes across as none of them.
Clarke’s skill as a cricketer will ensure he has plenty of years left in the public eye, and no doubt the public’s understanding of him will continue to develop. In the meantime, Clarke should worry less about how he is perceived, put the media training to one side, and let the fullness of his personality come through.
Till then, sports fans will continue to wonder, “Who is the real Michael Clarke?”