The new Australian hero

Published : Aug 22, 2009 00:00 IST

Michael Clarke is no more the ‘wild kid’ with a wealth of talent. The 28-year-old Aussie batsman is Ricky Ponting’s heir apparent and a worthy one at that. His transformation has been remarkable, writes S. Dinakar.

The Pup has grown up. Michael Clarke has added maturity and vision to his gifts as a cricketer. On the highway to glory, he certainly is.

Clarke represents a lot that is good about cricket and batsmanship. He is passionate about playing for his country, has introspected and evolved and grown in stature with responsibility.

He is no more the ‘wild kid’ with a wealth of talent. Now Clarke, 28, is Ricky Ponting’s heir apparent and a worthy one at that. His transformation has been remarkable.

The Australian administrators deserve credit for the manner in which they have handled Clarke. When he lost his way after a dazzling beginning in international cricket, they were quick to discard him.

Clarke then returned to domestic cricket, worked on innings building skills and temperament before getting back into the Australian team. Now, he is willing to apply himself at the crease. His appetite for runs is healthy.

The Australian vice-captain has been in sublime form in the ongoing Ashes series. Clarke has made 445 runs in four Tests at a whopping average of 89.00. He has shown both exceptional shot-making skills and character at the crease.

You would back someone like Clarke to deliver in Old Blighty. His wonderful footwork makes him well-equipped to cope with the moving ball.

Not too many contemporary batsmen use the depth of the crease as capably as Clarke does. He can go right forward or back, creating more time and room for himself. And he can find the gaps with precision.

Indeed, Clarke has been a picture of consistency in the Ashes series. His run of scores includes 83 at Cardiff, 136 at Lord’s, 103 not out at Birmingham and 93 at Leeds.

He has gritted it out in a rather old-fashioned manner when the occasion demanded. There were situations too when Clarke launched a calculated onslaught. When the ball moved around at Leeds, he produced a blaze of strokes, cashing in on the slightest of errors in line or length. His judicious aggression unsettled the English attack.

Clarke lends stability to the Australian middle-order. And it should not be long before the Aussie earns a promotion from the No. 5 slot that he presently occupies.

Clarke’s Test record is impressive. He has 3649 runs in 51 Tests at 50.68 with 12 hundreds. His home record (1820 runs in 24 Tests at 58.70) still scores over his away performances (1829 runs in 27 Tests at 44.60). However, Clarke’s away record is a creditable one and is likely to improve.

Learning his cricket in Sydney, this New South Welshman was brought up on a fair diet of spin; the surface at the SCG is conducive to spin bowling. This explains why Clarke is such a wristy batsman; he can coax the ball into the empty spaces on the on-side in a very sub-continental manner. He is also a fleet-footed batsman who relishes getting to the pitch of the flighted ball.

There was an unmistakable sense of adventure in his batting during the early phase of his career. Clarke’s nerveless Test debut in Bangalore in 2004 catapulted him to the centre stage. His 151 was an effort of jaw-dropping brilliance. An astonished Anil Kumble looked on as Clarke sashayed down to hit the leg-spinner over his head. His wristy cover-driving was often audacious. Riding on his skills, the young Aussie was undaunted by reputations.

Clarke continued to delight during the series as Australia, sans Steve Waugh, conquered the Final Frontier. His efforts of 91 and 73 in Nagpur were underlined by daring strokeplay. He was dancing down the track to the pacemen!

And when he got an opportunity to bowl, Clarke turned in a sensational spell of left-arm spin (six for nine) on a minefield of a pitch in Mumbai. He gambolled in the park, had ‘fun’ in the arena. Cricket was easy and his approach was a lot about freshness and freedom.

He notched up a 141 in the home Test at Brisbane against New Zealand that followed the Aussie campaign in India. Then arrived an innings of 91 at Lord’s during the 2005 Ashes series. After that, Clarke gradually lost his way.

The inability of Clarke to build on starts was among the reasons for Australia’s defeat in the Ashes. Clarke’s impulsive shot-making had landed him in trouble. The batsmen are comprehended better by the bowlers of the world after the first season and Clarke was being harried by some well-directed short-pitched bowling. And he was relentlessly probed in the corridor.

In 2005, Clarke made 476 runs in 12 Tests at a below par average of 28.00. The young batsman was not doing justice to his immense ability. Soon he was axed.

Clarke handled the change in fortunes well. He slugged it out in the tough domestic circuit, set goals for himself and learnt to construct an innings brick by brick. This included playing himself in, playing out spells and sessions and understanding the importance of singles.

An injury to Shane Watson provided Clarke a lifeline when the Englishmen arrived for the Ashes in 2006. He seized the opportunity. Clarke’s 389 runs at 77.80 in the series was a crucial factor in Australia regaining the Ashes. The new-look Clarke — he had tempered his aggression — brought much solidity to the middle-order.

Clarke continued to impress. He sparkled during the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean; the Aussie notched up 436 runs at 87.20. Australia emerged victorious.

In 156 ODIs, he has 4676 runs at 42.50 with four centuries and 35 half centuries. Clarke can change his game according to the demands of the occasion, either milking the bowling and running hard or launching into the big blows.

The new-look Clarke, making all the right moves, was elevated as vice-captain. During those occasions when Ponting rested or grappled with fitness concerns, Clarke was handed the reins.

He proved a tough captain too. When Andrew Symonds went on a fishing expedition at the expense of a team-meeting in Darwin ahead of the series against Bangladesh, captain Clarke was quick to act. Symonds was expelled from the team.

Clarke is among those cricketers who often find themselves in the thick of things. In the infamous Sydney Test of the 2007-08 season, Clarke’s left-arm spin (he took three wickets in the penultimate over) provided Australia a last-gasp win in an acrimonious match against India.

The Aussie was also accused of getting under the skin of his opponents. Clarke is no angel on the behavioural front — his dressing room skirmish with Simon Katich during a domestic match is well-documented — but plays his cricket hard and expects no favours.

He is among those cricketers who have put their country ahead of the IPL millions. Clarke has pulled out of the cash-rich Twenty20 cricket either to spend time with family or focus on his international commitments ahead. He clearly sets an example.

Technically, he still has the odd problem against the short-pitched ball — Clarke takes his eyes off the ball on occasions — but his batsmanship has a more complete look about it these days.

Clarke has much responsibility on his shoulders. Once Ponting drifts into the sunset, he will have to develop the next generation of Australian cricketers and bind them as a unit. It may not be an easy phase and Clarke’s temperament will be under scrutiny if things go wrong. It can be demanding to remain as No. 1 in the cricketing world.

In the days ahead, he is likely to grow as a cricketer and a leader. Michael Clarke is ambitious, which is not such a bad attribute. And he takes great pride in donning the baggy green.

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