Monday, 12 November 2012

What A Difference Clarke Makes

Clarke - another double
Is there anything else we need Michael Clarke to do before we can finally tell him all is forgiven. Are there really cricket supporters in Australia who still think he's not fit for the role he inherited from Ricky Ponting ... the same Ricky Ponting who won almost everything (except two series against England) and left a legacy of aggression and broken team relationships. The same Ponting that dressing room furniture was in fear off.

We greeted Clarke with doubt and reluctance and yet he set about the serious task of leading Australia back to the top of the ICC Test table with the media, the public and circumstances against him. No skipper has had to cope with the constant turn over of bowlers, arriving in success and leaving in injury. Virtually none have had to cope with having their predecessor in the side and none have led Australia at a time of such volatile administrative change.

He has done this whilst coping with his own personal injury problems. Anyone who has had a bad back knows how difficult that makes life, especially when you have to stand up for six hours at a time.

In Brisbane yesterday, he came to the wicket late in the afternoon at 3-40 with his team more than four hundred behind and his batting partner batting in the belief that this may well be his last Test. The best bowlers in the world had slashed through the top order and were roaring in. Some might have found it too hard and the boy we accused Clarke of being would have. Most of us were wrong. Clarke's response was to attack and this aggressive intent spread to the mentally acute Ed Cowan.

Where they had ended yesterday in hope, today they took all hope away from South Africa. In the first session they shut down South Africa, with Clarke driving and cutting without fear and Cowan adding vicious pulls to the array of boundaries that turned feared bowlers into fearful bowlers.

Cowan made his maiden 100
Cowan went to lunch needing two for his hundred and found it soon after. When it came, there was the wave of the bat to his team mates, to his family and particularly his wife in the stands. A quiet respectful glance was also cast toward the heavens to acknowledge a mentor and coach. It was twelve months ago to the day that Peter Roebuck took his own life.

Clarke got to the nineties and lingered slightly near the conversion from two to three digits but got there just as confidently.

The new ball eventually separated them but the only hand a bowler had it in belonged to Dale Steyn and then only his finger tips. A crashing straight drive from Clarke was deflected onto the stumps at the bowlers end and Cowan was unluckily despatched and a partnership of 259 ended.

Its hard to know which was the greater highlight, Cowan's hundred or the reaction of his father Richard. When asked what he thought of his son's hundred, a proud father quoted Kipling and told the ABC radio audience it was "the creed which Edward has lived by". Perhaps skills and intelligence are not such a surprise in the Cowan package.

Mike Hussey 86x
Mike Hussey, perpetually told he is under a cloud and just as often mounting a southerly to dispel the darkness, came to the centre and conducted a master class in the art of destroying bowlers. By stumps he had breezed close to yet another century.

Despite the quality of the supporting cast, it was the lead actor who stole the show at centre stage and in the process, became only the second batsman in the history of the game to score three double or triple centuries in a calendar year. None have scored more and there is no prize for guessing who the other is.

Apart from a mountain of runs - Clarke is the leading run scorer in the game this year - its the manner in which he has created outstanding performances in the early stages of series to shape how his players approached the matches ahead. It was a knack Allan Border had and it is the antitheses of what opposition fast bowlers are trying to achieve. Consider the following:
  • a dashing second innings 60 v SL at Galle, 1st Test Aug 2011
  • 151 v SA at Newlands, 1st Test Nov 2011
  • 139 v NZ at the Gabba, 1st Test Nov 2011
  • 329x v India at the SCG, 2nd Test Jan 2012
  • 73 v WI at Kensington Oval, 1st Test April 2012
  • 218x v SA at the Gabba, 1st Test Nov 2012
On each occasion, Clarke imposed himself on the opposition, regardless of turning, dead or lively tracks. As I've noted before, his batting average as captain is nearing 60, compared to the 46 he averaged as a mere mortal. His six hundreds since becoming captain have included a triple, two doubles and 151. He's hungry and doesn't matter where the table is set.

Of course, even as this is written, malingerers will still wish to see the stains before the wash and not the sparkling whites since. His lack of responsibility, the Bingle Bungle and the Katich incident are still on high rotation. Jealousy is a curse, one we infect ourselves with and it was easy in the past to distrust the pre-captain Clarke but consider this. When the brown stuff hit the rotating implement at Newlands twelve months ago and Clarke faced the media, did he complain about the wicket? Did he point out that his bowlers had dismissed South Africa for less than a hundred? Did he defer blame and remind those present that he had scored one of the greatest captain's hundreds the day before? Was he surly and evasive? No, no, no and no.  Instead, he said the following:

"If you don't feel the pain here, you'll never feel the pain and you're playing the wrong sport, for the wrong team. If there's one person in that change room with a smile on their face ... every single one of us needs to be disappointed, for good reason. There's also the other side that in this great game you need to find a way to get back up. Good teams do. That's how they learn and I think throughout my career, I've learnt from the not-so-good days, more than the good days. That's what I'm hoping everyone in that change room does, find something so when we get into a position like we did in that second innings with the bat, or today with the ball, we go about it in a different way."

That, boys and girls, is leadership and he appears to have found that different way.

There has been enough said about his disastrous relationship with Lara Bingle but, he acted responsibly in the end game and didn't compromise his sport, his team mates or himself. He has gone on to marry, in secret, with only those at his core present and without any hint of celebrity. The media, of course, dumped on him for not inviting team mates. The Katich incident needs one last word, if only to remind those who wish to still Eeyore the Skipper and its this: remember the old adage "what happens on tour, stays on tour". Who leaked the story to the media and who stood to gain from its retelling? Answer that question in the breath before you continue to make claims over Katich still topping the order and potentially taking the toss. Nothing happens by accident.

More than that, Clarke looks for results. He and Cowan and Hussey have put Australia back into the position of being the only side that can now win the game by adding 1-376 at better than four an over. Yes, its a dead flat track but if they had played doggo and showed straight bats all day it wouldn't have demoralised the South Africans. Tonight, we all believe they can beat South Africa ... roughly 24 hours after we seemed destined for defeat. That's a pretty mean trick.

There are problems with cheering this Australia success. It makes us potentially ignorant of the fact one of our juiciest wickets has been a shirt front and the day under the covers can't be blamed. The fear exists that a wicket square known for its spice, suddenly has a dotted line down the centre when South Africa tour. We think we are above such things in Australia but in truth, maybe not.

Another 160 in the extended first session and Clarke should throw the ball to his fast bowlers and tell them to go attack off stump. That's where the demons live and they are starving. Of course, they won't be the potential trump.

The real chance of winning lies somewhere between South Africa's batsman and the choker hold Nathan Lyon has the potential to put them in. If Australia can do the impossible, it will be Lyon who takes the important wickets.

My money's on the draw but that little ball of nerves in South African stomachs will grow with every run Clarke and Hussey and Wade stack onto the lead. 180 should be enough.