The pup that became top dog

Facing the axe, Clarke bows out on own terms.

In the end it had all become inevitable. Each scratchy innings bringing the end ever closer, and with those at home baying for blood and demanding casualties after a disastrous Australian Ashes campaign – there appeared nowhere else to go. All the signs pointed towards the end of the illustrious career of Michael Clarke.

pup farewellIt’s been a roller coaster year for the Australian captain. The highs of leading his country to World Cup glory on home soil were hugely overshadowed by huge lows. Lows that saw him blighted by chronic hamstring and back injuries alongside the pain of losing his great mate Phillip Hughes in tragic circumstances at the Sydney Cricket Ground last November.

Like many great players that have gone before, the end had slowly crept upon him. His form hadn’t been ideal for some time now but somehow you expected him to get through it, get those feet moving again and turn the shape of a match with one of his signature hundreds – one which he used to be capable of producing. But in the end sport waits for no man, with the Ashes now handed over this will be no fairytale ending for Clarke.

With each innings that passed it had become clear that he was no longer the player he once was and that it was time to hand over the leadership duties to Steve Smith as Australian cricket seeks to revive a beaten, embarrassed and ageing side with future assignments to follow shortly.

After scoring a superb 151 on Test debut at Bangalore in 2004, Clarke or ‘Pup’ to his teammates remained the last surviving link to the great Australian Test sides of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. His debut was made alongside the likes of McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer as this great Australian side finally conquered their final frontier by winning an away Test series in India for the first time in 35 years.

But unlike many of his predecessors from that great era of Australian dominance, Clarke’s career has perhaps not been given the high plaudits it deserves. There have always been the whispers. Over the years there have been murmurs that he rubbed up people the wrong way earlier in his career. There was the ‘Katich incident”, and the time when he responded to been asked to field at short leg by suggesting he’d rather hand his baggy green back instead of fielding under the helmet, or maybe the time he left a tour of New Zealand midway through to return to Australia and split up with his then glamour model fiancée Lara Bingle.

Even in the days following the announcement of his retirement at Trent Bridge on Saturday, Clarke has continued to receive criticism out of his home country. Former teammates Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds have both weighed in with their opinions in recent days. Hayden suggested that Clarke “ruffled feathers” during his time in the Australian side while Symonds’ questioned his captaincy qualities with a view that he was not a “natural leader” in the mould of other previous Australian Test captains. And they weren’t the only ones to have their say, with former national coach John Buchanan also chipping in by saying he felt Clarke may not have wanted to adopt the “baggy green culture” and that there were times when he felt Clarke didn’t understand or want to understand what it meant to represent his country.

For Clarke this must all feel like “water off a ducks back.” Not many players have divided public opinion throughout their careers quite like he has. He was booed by both home and away supporters at the MCG during his catastrophic Ashes campaign of 2010/11 – before becoming Australia’s 43rd Test captain in the following match at the SCG. With Ricky Ponting’s tenure of captaincy coming towards its end, a public poll was conducted by a Sydney newspaper to gauge who the majority believed should be the new Test leader – although Clarke was the current vice-captain and Ponting’s natural heir apparent he got less than 15% of the public favour to succeed the Tasmanian.

It seemed the Australian public didn’t like a working class boy from Sydney’s western suburbs, he who thought he had made it before his time. The love of fast cars, flashy threads and the glamour model girlfriend wasn’t the Australian way. It wasn’t what Allan Border did or Steve Waugh or Ponting either – this was a new breed of Australian cricketer with diamond earring and bleached blond hair to boot. What the public didn’t see was the hard work Clarke put in off the field.

It had all started so much brighter for Clarke. He was the young pup amongst a field of legends. The debut hundred in India was followed by another against New Zealand in his first Test on home soil and just fifth overall. The good times were rolling, but they weren’t to last. It would be two more years and nineteen more matches before he would score another Test century. In this time he was dropped twice from the Test side.

His return coincided with the famous Ashes whitewash series of 2006/07, where he finally cemented his place in the side with hundreds in both Adelaide and Perth. The series marked the retirement of his good mate and mentor Warne along with both McGrath and Langer. It would be the beginning of the end for Australia’s decade of dominance.

After playing a hand in his country’s second successive World Cup final victory in the Caribbean in 2007, he was also instrumental in the Test side’s record-equalling sixteen victories in a row which was achieved with a late win against India at the SCG in January 2008 – Clarke himself claiming the final rites with three wickets in an over to secure the match. Later that month he would take time away from the game to be with fiancée Bingle with her father battling terminal cancer, whilst his own father, Les, also battled Hodgkin’s disease. Despite family always coming first, many in Australia believed his shouldn’t be missing Test matches. But like he would do after splitting from Bingle during the New Zealand tour two years later, he returned with a century – this time in a victory over the West Indies in Antigua. Fighting adversity would become hallmark of his character throughout his Test career.

In 2009 Clarke suffered his second away Ashes series defeat in four years, but fared better with the bat than he had done in 2005, as he scored back-to-back centuries at Lords and Edgbaston to cement himself as one of the world’s premier batsmen. His next Ashes campaign would be his last as lieutenant as the English swarmed down under and wiped the floor with Ponting and his men. Not only was it a terrible series for Ponting, but for Clarke too. His 193 runs at an average of 21 were only marginally better than the 113 runs at 16 scored by the man he would soon replace at the helm just months later. His popularity with the public was at an all time low.

Why was this hugely talented batsman still so unloved by his public? By now he had split from Bingle and started a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Kylie Boldy, and he was about to be charged with bringing back the glory days to a nation that expects success from its cricket side.

His first full series as captain was a successful one. Scoring a hundred in the third and final Test he led his side to a 1-0 series victory in Sri Lanka. Then for the hundred he calls his finest. A magnificent 151 in Cape Town whilst batting against the South African trio of Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander on a difficult wicket in which others struggled to adapt. Sadly for Clarke all of the attention surrounding the match came in his sides second innings. 47 all out – Australia’s lowest total in over a hundred years. The jury was still out on Clarke and his leadership credentials.

Then came the breakthrough. The year that Pup became the top dog, and the year in which the Australian public started to warm to the man from Liverpool in Sydney’s west – this was 2012 and it was Clarke’s year. He started it off with a hometown hundred for the ages. 329 not out to be precise. Batting against India at the SCG he was given a standing ovation by the Sydney faithful as he declared with his score just five runs shy of the record held by Sir Donald Bradman and Mark Taylor for the second highest score by an Australian batsman in Test cricket. This is what he had dreamed of, his own people standing as one to cheer their local hero at SCG. You can’t always win over everyone but for Clarke this was as good as it got.

The triple hundred in Sydney was just the beginning as he became the only man in history to score four scores of over 200 in a calendar year. The second came just two Tests after that memorable effort in Sydney, again against India, this time in Adelaide, a ground that would become his most prolific in term of runs made (1414 runs at a touch over 94), on this occasion it was in unison with his former skipper Ponting as the pair each recorded double hundreds in a partnership worth 387.

When South Africa toured later in the year Clarke was at it again. An unbeaten 259 at The Gabba in Brisbane was followed with 210 again at the Adelaide Oval. These were heights that had never been reached before by an Australian. His magical year was rounded off with a boxing day hundred against Sri Lanka at the ‘G’. It was 2012 that moved Clarke from a good cricketer to a potential modern day great. Only three men in the history of Test cricket had scored more runs in a calendar year than Clarke’s 1595 in 2012 and none of them were Australian.

The accolades were forthcoming as he picked up his fourth Allan Border Medal in early 2013 to go alongside both ICC awards for cricketer and Test cricketer of the year. But the heights scaled by Clarke in 2012 were never quite repeated, yes there were the occasional pieces of brilliance and innings that showed his determination and skill but not the ultimate consistency. His chronic back issues were beginning to cause him real strife and he lost long term middle order rocks Ponting and Michael Hussey to retirement.

The start of 2013 was a difficult one for Clarke and his troops. A 4-0 reverse in India highlighted the difficulties this current side faced in adapting to foreign conditions – especially on the subcontinent. Cracks had started to appear in the camp, and when the “homeworkgate” episode exploded out of India, Clarke and his coach Mickey Arthur has some serious questions to answer. The tour ended with Clarke missing his first Test match in five years as back issues continued to plague him. Shane Watson, one of those suspended for not doing his homework just weeks earlier, took over the captaincy amongst ciaos in the camp. Arthur would later claim that Clarke suggested Watson was “a cancer on the team.”

With his close ally Arthur dismissed before the Ashes campaign got underway in England, there was more upheaval for Clarke to deal with. It didn’t help that David Warner went around throwing drunken punches at England cricketers in Birmingham nightclubs, but big management changes were just around the corner and Darren Lehmann, an old school Aussie larrikin, was brought in to shake the place up.

It has always been difficult to judge the relationship between Clarke and Lehmann. On the surface they appear completely different characters, but by and large the two years they have served together have been successful ones. Defeat in England was overlooked by an astounding whitewash of the poms back home just months later. Clarke led the fight, warning James Anderson to “get ready for a broken f**king arm,” as Mitchell Johnson terrorised England into submission.

A series victory in South Africa in early 2014 was perhaps the highlight of Clarke’s captaincy career. His 161, achieved with a broken shoulder in the series decider at Cape Town was as courageous as they come. After being repeatedly peppered by Morkel short balls, he gutsed it out to lead his side back to number one in the Test rankings.

For Clarke and Australia the year ended in heartbreak. In late November the unthinkable happened. The death of Philip Hughes from head injuries sustained through a bouncer at the SCG rocked Clarke more than most. Hughes was his “little bother.” A teammate, who the often reluctant captain was particularly close with, was taken whilst playing cricket.

Perhaps Clarke’s greatest legacy with be the way in which he spoke for the country during the loss of his great mate. He stayed bedside with Hughes in a Sydney hospital before acting as a spokesperson for the family of the fallen batsman. The 128 he scored in Adelaide just weeks after will forever be his best knock. The way in which Pup conducted himself during this devastating time will forever be his legacy more than any flash cars or snazzy threads could ever be.

As a batsman, like Ponting before him, Clarke was a once in a generation player. As a captain he was fresh, imaginative and always ahead of the game – for that he must rank up there alongside Mark Taylor as one of Australia’s greatest captains in the modern era.

Like many of his predecessors he looks set to follow a familiar path trodden by ex-Australian Test captains. A career in the Channel Nine commentary box awaits.

But before that there’s one more Test match to win next week.

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