The pup has grown and how!

Right now, Michael Clarke, the Aussie skipper, is on a high, gaining sweet revenge at the expense of the Englishmen. Importantly, he has his priorities right. For him, the baggy green comes before the cash-rich Twenty20 leagues. He is a leader of men, can walk the talk, writes S. Dinakar.

Michael Clarke is on the ball. At the crease, he slices attacks open with light feet and deft touches. As captain, he marshals major Australian comebacks such as the one in the ongoing Ashes.

Importantly, he has his priorities right. For him, the baggy green comes before the cash-rich Twenty20 leagues. He is a leader of men, can walk the talk.

There has been an astonishing turnaround for the Aussies following the summer in Old Blighty. Now, England is on the run down under. And Clarke and Australia have been ruthless.

Centuries of significance have rolled off the skipper’s cultured willow in the Brisbane and Adelaide Tests. The pace pack led by the menacing, fire-spitting Mitchell Johnson has blown away the English batsmen.

The ‘Cricketer of the Year’ award from the ICC during his 100th Test — against England in Perth — recognised Clarke’s influence as a gifted batsman and his positive captaincy attributes.

Clarke is quick-thinking, does not look the other way when a situation requiring a brave decision confronts him; he has, indeed, already earned a name for shock declarations.

His man-management skills have been questioned by some, but Clarke is guided by a conviction that demands unflinching commitment to the Australian side.

The ‘Homework-Gate’ on the Indian tour last season, where telling disciplinary action was taken against four Australians including vice-captain Shane Watson for not responding to ‘performance introspecting’ questionnaires ahead of the third Test at Mohali, brought the fissures in the team to the fore.

Rather paradoxically, Clarke sought greater control within the side even as Australia continued to lose on that disastrous Indian campaign. Backed by coach Mickey Arthur, he wanted to send out a message.

Johnson was among those who were handed punishments — a one Test ban. The paceman returned with greater force and determination.

Those were testing days for Clarke. The 32-year-old New South Welshman faced stormy times too in England where the ‘Punch Gate’ involving David Warner and Joe Root saw the Australian opener forced out of the preparatory matches and missing the vital first two Tests. Arthur, consequently, lost his job.

The dramatic appointment of Darren Lehmann as coach saw Clarke joining hands with an equally aggressive personality. He has no issues with the unfortunate Arthur — made the fall guy really — but son-of-the-soil Lehmann did hold promise of forging an effective captain-coach combination.

England triumphed 3-0 in the Ashes but the series was closer than what the scoreline suggests. England scraped through in the pivotal first Test at Nottingham by 14 runs, and could have lost the third Test at Manchester, where, pursuing 332, it was 37 for three on the final day when rain came down.

In the final Test, Clarke’s audacious declaration on the last day at the Oval actually set the tone for the second leg of the back-to-back Ashes. Failing in its bid to win, England, mentally, found itself on the back-foot.

By his own high standards, Clarke had a lacklustre series with the bat, barring a combative 187 in the Manchester Test. Yet, his numbers so far in 2013 are respectable — 1077 runs in 12 Tests at 48.95 with four hundreds.

The year 2012 was one of stirring batting conquests for the Australian skipper, with an epic 329 not out against India in Sydney, an unbeaten 259 and 230 versus South Africa at Brisbane and Adelaide shining bright.

When in form, not many batsmen use the depth of the crease more capably than Clarke. He has this unique ability to pick the length early and play the ball late, creating more time and space in the process.

The year that followed had varied hues. Although Clarke might have been disappointed with his returns in England, he had the satisfaction of seeing the team gradually settle down.

The departure of the legendary Ricky Ponting and the formidable Michael Hussey had made the side’s batting vulnerable, particularly in conditions favouring the bowlers. There were too many new breed flashy stroke-makers in the team without the required set of defensive skills. The team needed stayers as well.

In this context, the induction of battling opener Chris Rogers was critical. The southpaw provided greater stability to the top-order. And in the latter half of the Ashes in England, Warner was opening with Rogers in a pair of contrasts.

The pieces were finally falling in place. In the talented Steve Smith, Australia found a middle-order batsman of possibilities with a reasonable defence. Smith has blossomed.

The selectors were spot on with their decision to include George Bailey, a strokeful batsman with plenty of experience in first-class cricket and possessing the ability to construct an innings.

Along the way, Clarke also brought together the right pace combination. Peter Siddle, fast and straight, and the skiddy Ryan Harris of two-way movement were pulling their weight in the side.

Australia possessed exciting young pacemen in James Pattinson (his methods are similar to that of Siddle and playing them together robs the attack of variety), Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins but these young men lacked an essential attribute — control that builds stress.

Clarke zeroed in on the right men. While Siddle and Harris, with his improved fitness levels, formed a probing pair, Australia searched for an explosive spearhead.

When Johnson was called back to Australia to prepare for the Ashes, ahead of the decisive final game of the ODI series in India, it was clear that Clarke and Lehmann had earmarked Johnson for a key role.

Australia got its strategy right. Siddle and Harris concentrated on accuracy and movement while ferocious left-armer Johnson, firing the 150 kmph thunderbolts when he wanted to, was let loose on the Englishmen. The shell-shocked England crumbled.

Clarke clearly wanted to dent the English psyche. The Aussies had worked on the physical appearance of the more muscular Johnson as well, complete with a handlebar moustache that evoked memories of Dennis Lillee during a period when the maestro bowled blinding quick.

From a pleasant fast bowler, Johnson had now turned into a pace predator. Although the purists would protest, the Aussies, consciously, engaged the Englishmen in verbal duels, unsettling the visitors in the process.

This was a typically attack-minded Australian team of old, one that would pounce on the opposition in the arena. For most part of the series in India and England, Australia had appeared too soft. Johnson’s chest-thumping, awe-inspiring burst of raw aggression on a flat track in Adelaide lent a different cutting-edge dimension to this Australian side.

The manner in which Clarke rotated the three pacemen with a cordon in place — Johnson sizzled with short pitched lifters, deliveries that seamed back and scorching yorkers — reflected a clever cricketing mind.

A skipper who listens to his impulse, Clarke had men in catching positions for the much-improved off-spinner Nathan Lyon. All escape routes for England were cut off.

With the bat, Australia built partnerships and England didn’t. Importantly, Warner boomed with powerful hits. For Clarke, the picture was almost complete.

His is a remarkable tale. Clarke travelled to India in 2004 for his maiden Test series and conjured a spellbinding 151 on his debut in Bangalore; he walked down to smack Anil Kumble over his head as if he were parading his skills in a club game.

Clarke gambolled in the park while fielding and sent down his left-arm spin effectively. His cricket offered so much joy.

Subsequently, Clarke lost his way briefly, found himself out, but came back a more matured cricketer who comprehended the value of his place.

As he completed his 100th Test, the Aussie deserved all the glory that arrived with it. This ‘Pup’ is a survivor. And a winner.