He enriched the game with his classy batsmanship

Michael Clarke... known to play cricket the hard way.-GETTY IMAGES

Australian cricket will take long to fill the void created by Michael Clarke’s retirement, even though Steve Smith has raised hopes with his leadership, writes Vijay Lokapally.

The image is vivid. Michael Clarke addressing the media, struggling to suppress tears, maintaining a dignified countenance as he spoke of his departed colleague, Phil Hughes. It was a difficult phase for Clarke, captain of the team, a leader actually, recounting Hughes’ contribution to Australian cricket.

At one point Clarke broke down, human emotions finally breaking his steely resolve not to weep. For a man, known to play cricket the hard way, fighting every inch, giving the opposition nightmares, this was an unusual experience. An Australian captain in tears? Yes, it had happened once when Kim Hughes gave in to his tortuous battle to win the support of some of his team-mates.

In Clarke’s case, it was not unpleasantness with his colleagues but the loss of a dear mate, a young cricketer, that left him devastated. As he bids goodbye to cricket, Clarke must reflect in solitude the joys and sorrows, the victories and defeats, his best and worse moments from the time he arrived with a bang in 2004 with a century on Test debut, a sensational knock of 151 against India in Bangalore.

“I’ve given my heart and soul to Australian cricket. Every time I’ve walked on the field I’ve tried to do whatever it takes to help the team have success, whether I’ve been captain or just a player. And I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said when announcing his decision to retire after surrendering the Ashes to England.

His humble reaction highlighted a mind at peace with reality. “I’m very fortunate to have played over 100 Test matches for my country. And, like I said before, I’m very grateful to both the players I’ve played with and played against. I was very fortunate to be the 43rd Australia Test captain and I’m really proud and honoured that I was given the opportunity. To all the players I’ve captained, I just hope I’ve been able to bring the best out of them. I think that’s part of your role as captain of the team to get the best out of each individual player and the best out of the team.”

He was a captain who led by example, a captain who lived up to the grand traditions of Australian cricket, a captain who dominated like Don Bradman, inspired like Steve Waugh, delivered like Ricky Ponting and stood for credibility like Mark Taylor. He was a distinguished performer, winning matches on his strength.

He firmly believes that he bows out of the game at the appropriate stage. “I think it’s the right time for the team and for me to walk away from the game. I think this team now needs some fresh energy, there will be some fresh faces and some fresh enthusiasm as well. I’m confident that Australian cricket will continue to get better and I’m looking forward to sitting on my couch and watching them from there,” he said. It takes character to make tough choices even though Clarke was driven by repeated failures that questioned his very presence in the team.

Australia has had a fine line of captains beginning with Taylor and followed by Waugh, Ponting and Clarke. Taylor and Waugh were different, both building the team with dedication. Waugh enjoyed a winning culture and Ponting and Clarke maintained with consistency. The baggy green was a matter of immense pride to them all.

Battling a chronic back problem, Clarke carried the team on his shoulders. The reason? As Mathew Hayden wrote, “He learnt the game at the top level from a young age.” Clarke kept learning as he went from strength to strength. He had his spats with the opposition, Harbhajan Singh and James Anderson at various times, but there was not a doubt that he enriched world cricket with his classy batsmanship.

He marked his debut series with a century in his first innings in the first Test in Bangalore and capped it with an astonishing spell of 6.2-0-9-6 in the final Test in Mumbai. A pity it came in a losing cause. Did it matter? Clarke had arrived with a promise of achieving greatness in the game. At the end of 11 seasons since those glorious contests, Clarke stands out as a cricketer of repute and distinction.

Michael Clarke with Steve Smith on the opening day of the fifth and final Ashes Test at the Kia Oval. Smith is saddled with the task of reviving Australian cricket in the absence of a trusted leader like Clarke.-GETTY IMAGES

As a batsman, Clarke was feared by the bowlers. The year 2012 put him on a high pedestal. His 329 not out in Sydney and the 210 in Adelaide against India at the beginning of the year was followed by a 259 not out in Brisbane and a 230 in Adelaide against South Africa towards the end of the year. But he was gracious in admitting his failures, terming his last 12 months as unacceptable — the aggregate of 117 runs in eight innings of the 2015 Ashes in England being the lowest point of his career.

Clarke’s departure at the age of 34 leaves Australian cricket in turmoil. The team is set to undergo rapid changes and the transition period is going to be a huge test for Steve Smith, named captain, and his deputy David Warner. Australia’s search will involve looking for batsmen and bowlers of international quality. He leaves the scene at a challenging period for the Australian selectors and Smith is saddled with the task of reviving Australian cricket in the absence of a trusted leader like Clarke.

Pragmatic in analysing the current state of Australian cricket and his exit, Clarke observed, “There are no fairy tales here. I would obviously like to have played better in this series, but that’s the way the game goes. There are highs and lows and difficult periods, but I’ve enjoyed both. Without the tough times I certainly wouldn’t be sitting where I am today.” Australian cricket will take long to fill this void even though Smith has raised hopes with his leadership.