Michael Clarke has evolved into a captain Australia has finally learned to love

Australia Flags

Glancing at the cover of the match programme during Australia’s recent tour game at Essex, one could see the increasing absurdity of Michael Clarke being nicknamed Pup.

The face staring back is grizzled, stubbled, blotched by harsh days in harsher sunlight. There is an intensity to the eyes that matches the hard edge of the Australia captain’s public persona. His name did not start as an ironic appellation but has morphed into one.

Gone, too, is the joyousness. Baby canines were fair to evoke when a young Clarke was bounding down the pitch, yanking off his helmet to reveal tousled bleached locks, red chubby cheeks pushed out by a grin. These days Clarke smiles fleetingly on the field, like an approving schoolmaster. He sports a no-nonsense buzz cut. His face is lean from hard work. Where delight was the defining feature of his play, now it is mainly determination, especially as he prepares for what will probably be his final Ashes tour after three series defeats in England.

Everyone changes from his early 20s to mid-30s but it must be hard to do it in the public eye. The theory of observation influencing its subject is familiar. The most recent stage of Clarke’s transition seemed to happen in 2013. For several years his team’s fortunes had declined, culminating in a trip to India that counted a 4-0 scoreline among its lesser humiliations. Through the subsequent tour of England Clarke increasingly took on the part of a rebooted Captain Grumpy. There was no pleasure in close finishes, just an unsentimental thumbs-down.

As I wrote in July’s Cricket Monthly, it was the last chapter in a period of emasculation for a side used to being high on their own potency. As soon as Mitchell Johnson spooked England in Brisbane later that year, Clarke savagely reclaimed the ascendancy. “Get ready for a broken fucken arm” was the snarl of a hardened heart. It was undeniably compelling to watch.

Yet it was so far from Clarke’s Test beginnings: centuries on debut in Bangalore and home debut in Brisbane, marked by youthful audacity and a clear, laughing sense of elation. Nothing seemed impossible. The then coach, John Buchanan, says: “He walked into the dressing room and it was as if he’d been there for 10 years. What seemed to be Michael’s make-up was that this was all part of the script, that he was to be in the Australian cricket team, he was to be one of the best batsmen Australia would produce, he was going to be there for a long time and he was going to make a hundred on debut. People can take it as a bit arrogant, but it has been part and parcel of him as a person.”

Before long the balance between confidence and cockiness slipped. Buchanan recalls senior team-mates such as Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist sitting Clarke down when he wanted to take off after a match, stressing the importance of the dressing room and team bonding. Clarke must have been unswayed, given a few years later the same issue caused his famous dust-up with Simon Katich. Asked about Clarke’s approach, Buchanan pauses. “If I were still around, I’d say it’s for the worse because I was a great believer in what the baggy green symbolised and the way you could use that to great effect in a group. But that may also mean that my thinking is out of touch with a younger breed of athlete.”

Public antipathy towards Clarke grew post-Katich. The dressing-room disputes symbolised a generational split. Against an idea of Australian manhood as plain and unassuming Clarke had tattoos, posed on bus-stop billboards and drove James Bond sports cars with celebrity girlfriends. He was dismissed as a pretty boy, city boy, metrosexual show-off. The rules were made up as we went along. Pat Rafter could do modelling because he was a good ordinary bloke who said “Sorry, mate” on the tennis court. If Clarke did it, he was a flouncy Gen Y waster, head not in the game – as though playing for Australia meant one should sit in a box never thinking about anything else.

These days his popularity has reversed. Some tag the change to the loss of Phillip Hughes. Clarke was statesmanlike, acting as the family’s spokesman and delivering a fine eulogy. But the shift in opinion started well beforehand, carefully managed during his ascent to the captaincy. He shaved his head like a penitent monk, ditched all flourish and excess from his batting and his public life and became a focused cricket ascetic.

Then came 2012’s divine visitation: a triple century and three doubles across eight Tests in less than a year. Few are the people who cannot be won over by weight of success. There had already been appreciation for his tactical skill, especially after Ricky Ponting’s Plan A, Plan A, Plan A approach. But Clarke’s hundreds showed ruthlessness, the thing that had been suspect. From there he provided regular refreshers, carrying the side in futile causes in Chennai, Cape Town, Manchester, then back to Cape Town to win a series in 2014 unbeaten with a broken arm. By the time of Hughes’s memorial Test in Adelaide – Clarke’s bravest century, though battling his own body more than India’s bowling – acknowledgment of his toughness was assured.

That toughness includes a physical struggle with a back condition held largely out of the public eye. “He has worked harder than any one person I’ve ever known to keep himself on a cricket field,” says Steve Rixon, who coached Clarke at New South Wales and with the national side. “It would have been so easy to say: ‘You know what? I’ve had a gutful.’ Instead of that he would work the extra three or four hours to make sure he can play.”

His captaincy has similar discipline. Following the team, one gets the impression of an operation run by Clarke, not a group of his friends. “He’s hard,” says Rixon, “but he expects no more out of his players than he presents to the side himself. Michael had to work his way into captaincy, with the side he had and the senior players, and maybe he was a bit slow on the uptake. But for the last two or three years he’s been all over it. You’re going to have your friendships as well as your team-mates, so he had to learn to break that barrier down to make sure there was no favouritism. There are a few things he had to get past before he was in control of the group of guys.”

Buchanan adds: “It has brought him into conflict with some of his players on occasion. Leadership isn’t always about popularity. It’s about directing a group of people to get results. In the main he’s been a strong leader and in the main they’ve responded very well.”

This hardness, though, carries over to Clarke’s personal objectives. In November 2014 the selectors said he needed to play a tour game in Adelaide to prove his fitness for the first Test against India, only for him to respond that he would stay in Sydney for a day’s batting in a grade match. It was a public challenge not to leave him out, which the selectors planned to do until Hughes’s death saw the story disappear. The rescheduled Test bought Clarke a few days’ recovery time and, though he injured another hamstring in the match, his playing was right in the circumstances. Sometimes symbolism and ceremony have material importance.

Still, immediately afterwards he painted the selectors into another corner, saying he would return for the World Cup in February 2015. Clarke was not in Australia’s best one-day XI and had barely played the format in two years. The reins had been competently held by George Bailey but the cup was a prize Clarke wanted. If a tight fitness deadline was a strategy to keep him from the squad, he confounded it with assiduous recovery work. Although his on-field contributions were minimal until a strolling run-chase in the final, he was able to tip Bailey from the team and join an exclusive club of nine World Cup-winning captains.

The Clarke of today wears a carapace. It is 10 years since his first away Ashes and defeat this summer would mean four in a row in England but on the eve of the first Test he deflects any related questions. “I haven’t really thought about what it means to me honestly. My concern is about this team and what our next major goal is.” It is the way his answers go: team talk, careful phrasing, boxes ticked.

Of course it is fudge: Australians were able to treat their 2005 loss with condescending magnanimity but, as the rest have piled up, a sullenness has settled. There’s no doubt about it, to borrow Clarke’s favourite press‑conference phrase.

It is personal and he is determined to win. But it makes one wonder, that determination. Back on those two debut innings, those storied centuries, the game seemed nothing more than a means of attaining and expressing happiness – a love, a dance, a kid choreographing a series of movement laid out for its own sake. These days it offers a grimmer satisfaction, something thin-lipped and Spartan. Is this want all-consuming? Is it possible to take pleasure in things that one has to harden oneself to this extent to attain? Perhaps after Clarke retires, a little of that kid can come back out from behind the shell. It would be lovely to see him again.

Touring troubles

2005, England win 2-1 Clarke comes into his first Ashes tour, aged 24, in a bit of a slump in form and it shows – in nine innings he only once goes beyond 56. His average of 37.22 is a disappointing return and he loses his place in the side as a result

2009, England win 2-1 Now vice-captain he enjoys a better series on a personal level – two centuries, 448 runs and an average of 64 – but once again it is in a losing effort. Only Andrew Strauss scores more heavily in the series

2013, England win 3-0 The buildup to Clarke’s first Ashes tour as captain is dominated by talk of a split in the dressing room and injury concerns. Another decent series with the bat – he averages just over 47 – but a third series defeat

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Geoff Lemon, for The Guardian on Sunday 5th July 2015 22.00 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010