A JIGSAW PUZZLE TOUGH TO SOLVE
Man of mystery divided a nation
MICHAEL Clarke will be remembered as the cricket captain we never really knew.
Clarke was Australia’s first Gen Y skipper.
The nation was not quite ready for him and, despite his heroic deeds and the respect which flowed from them, older fans never quite got him.
It was always going to take cricket, the sport where you sat silent in the dressingroom corner until you proved yourself, a while to adjust to a national captain with tattoos and, at various stages, earrings, bleached hair, model girlfriends, fast cars, a flash pad and fast-moving friends.
It is now the job of historians to define the man, the batsman and the captain. And while the last two will be easily done, the first one will be a complex challenge because there are so many conflicting and contrasting threads.
Through the years we’ve called Allan Border defiant, Steve Waugh pugnacious, Richie Benaud charismatic and Don Bradman incomparable.
But there’s just no one word that gets Michael Clarke, brilliant tactician yet a chameleon of the crease.
There’s the well-mannered lad who once said he still got a clip behind the ear from his father if he even spoke back to his mum.
Clarke was always acutely aware of the standards of him expected in public.
If you ever heard there was a public incident involving a cricketer, you never thought it was Clarke, and it never was.
Then there’s the man who divided a dressingroom, a nation and almost forced a selection panel to sack him last summer because he refused to obey their orders about how he should manage his back injury.
He could be charming, controlling and contrary, respectful yet rebellious and highly sensitive.
Clarke’s relationship with the selectors – even when he was one of them – was loveless and strained. Some were so open in their disdain they used to bag him publicly at guest speaking nights.
He was the first national captain Cricket Australia never really owned.
Allan Border’s last contract with Australia was $95,000. Clarke’s was $2 million-plus.
With big money came independence and the confidencebuilding notion that if it all ended tomorrow, you are still set up for life.
At the start of his international career, Clarke came into a room of hardy old sweats, many of whom never warmed to him for they saw him as self- absorbed. One morning at the Gabba early in his career, Darren Lehmann grabbed Clarke’s cap at training and drew a small fish on it with the words “Nemo’’ below it, hinting he was a small fish in a big pond.
If there was one definitive moment when the new and old world’s collided it was when Clarke was grabbed by the throat by Simon Katich in the SCG dressingroom after Clarke tried to hasten the singing of the team song so he could leave with his girlfriend.
The older generation did not like Clarke’s cockiness, nor the way he occasionally sat on his hands in team meetings when he was Ricky Ponting’s vice-captain only to bound to life when he took the reins when Ponting stood down.
As a captain, Clarke was one of the game’s greatest ever tacticians, so bold he became the first Test captain to declare innings closed before people thought he would.
With field placements, bowling changes and general tactics he was on page three when everyone else was still reading page one.
His captaincy career was a wild rollercoaster ride – in 2013 he went eight Tests without a win then won five in a row.
He was a better tactician than he was a man manager and the fact that Shane Watson averaged 10 runs more per Test innings under Ricky Ponting than he did under Clarke is often seen as evidence that players play better for skippers from whom they gain affection. The Watson-Clarke union never clicked.
As a batsman there is no doubts about Clarke’s pedigree.
It seems unfair his average slipped below 50 in his final series because he scored centuries from the dusty decks of Bangalore to bouncing Brisbane and seaming Cape Town.
Clarke has his critics but even the most caustic should not dispute he was one of the best batsmen and outstanding captains our nation has had.
He could be charming, controlling and contrary, respectful yet rebellious and highly sensitive