Not every great batsman has a moment that signals their terminal decline as a player but many do. One can’t think of the final days of Ricky Ponting’s Test career without that tragi-comic and undignified face-plant after he’d been bowled by Jacques Kallis at Adelaide in 2012, a sequence of events so out of step with the authoritative demeanour Ponting had always projected at opponents that at first you assumed Kallis must have bowled the yorker of the century. He hadn’t. It wasn’t even a yorker at all, in fact.
There was a similar scene on the first morning of the Edgbaston Test two weeks back when Michael Clarke played all around a full and straight but certainly not devastating Steven Finn delivery. In being castled by the Englishman, Clarke appeared to age a decade, the bowler seemingly face-to-face with the Australian captain by the time he’d finally jammed his bat down. Things haven’t improved much from there.
Yet in classic Clarke style, he still managed to reclaim and re-write the situation through the sheer force of his own personality, announcing his retirement from Test cricket right as England were winning back the Ashes and in doing so robbing from them of some of the limelight they might have enjoyed alone. As far as dramatic gestures go it could easily be construed as egomaniacal or petty, perhaps lacking in grace. When you assess Clarke’s career and the captain he’s become, it also makes perfect sense.
There was always something a little more calculated about Clarke. Even in the youthful spontaneity of his debut 151 against India at Bangalore, he ceremonially motioned for his freshly-presented baggy green as the century milestone approached but when the moment arrived ripped it off his head anyway to reveal that shock of peroxide hair, not one strand out of place.
His first 9-5 boss, Kingsgrove Sports Centre founder Harry Solomons, says none of his famous alumni – Steve and Mark Waugh included – possessed anything like Clarke’s work ethic. Every bat, glove or pad that passed him in Solomon’s warehouse was carefully packed, each piece tucked in with the same fastidiousness as all those Australian shirts he’d later wear. With Clarke nothing was left to chance. Everything needed to be just so. He had it all under control.
That “performance” element of his persona and the need for control never really left him, possibly also acting as a barrier to shield Clarke from self-doubt or absorbing the constant stream of criticism that has followed his every move for more than a decade, criticism that has clearly worn him down in recent times. “I think you watch and see how hard they work,” Clarke said of the younger players who’ll now vie to replace him, “and I’d love to see us get behind them rather than write them off.”
It also pays to remember the number of times Clarke’s singular focus and bloody-mindedness were his greatest assets. These were the qualities that produced his truly transcendent performances, feats that single-handedly won Australia Tests or restored order in downbeat times; would any player other than Clarke have forced himself through a summer-ending injury to score that hundred in tribute to Phillip Hughes at Adelaide?
His undefeated 161 to spearhead Australia’s momentous Test win at Cape Town last year was operatic in its scale and drama. Giant South African paceman Morne Morkel tenderised Clarke’s torso with a savage and sustained spell of short-pitched bowling but the captain – shoulder broken by one particularly devastating blow – masochistically absorbed every single hit before dragging himself away from the ropes and embarking on a seven-hour epic. By the end of the Test Australia had returned to the top of the world rankings. Clarke had never been more greatly admired, though he’d soon push that marker out too.
One wonders how much Clarke’s steady flow of physical ailments influenced his often individualistic approach to the game. Perhaps the need for unending, specialised treatment reinforced in him the idea that Australia simply couldn’t do without him. “While you sleep, I train” went Clarke’s infamous tweet, the least subtle example of a career-long campaign in which he was positioned as the man who worked harder than everyone else, took losses with greater levels of devastation and did more than anyone to avenge them.
Clarke could never have gone on as an Australian player with someone else as captain, like Ricky Ponting had under him, even if it was a possibility. That Steve Smith had already found his fill-in stint so richly rewarding seemed to chip away at the idea of what this Australian side was and where Clarke sat within that identity. Accepting that it was a lesser force while he grimly hung in there must have been a spiritual blow.
Looking back it’s amazing to consider just how many different Michael Clarke’s there have been. There was “Pup” Clarke the apprentice, high-fiving his teenage heroes. Then came Ferrari Clarke, Lara Bingle Clarke, James Packer’s boat Clarke. Who could forget Clarke and Kyly on the horse? Most enduring is mournful Clarke holding the nation’s tearful attention and willing himself through that eulogy for his “little brother” Hughes and heroic Clarke – hamstring hanging by a thread and emotions frayed beyond belief – willing himself to that hundred and trying to make things feel normal again.
We have to get ready for an entirely different Clarke now, one who should slide seamlessly into the blazered, cross-promoting milieu of Channel Nine, perhaps acting as a translator of Shane Warne’s word salad. But you sense that in that role he’ll retain a certain measure of Captain Clarke, a man who hates confessing to a moment of self-doubt.
Now there’s just The Oval, a dead rubber that acts as an Ashes victory lap for England and a leaving party for the Australian captain. While Clarke is still there artfully fussing at his collar, pursing his lips in anticipation of a change in field or flat-batting another impertinent question from a reporter, who could bet against him orchestrating himself some grand farewell?
This article was written by Russell Jackson, for theguardian.com on Monday 10th August 2015 01.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010