Sunday, 9 August 2015

Pup - A Life Running With The Hounds

There is a commonly repeated phrase that one should never speak ill of the departing. It's intention is to protect those who can no longer speak for themselves but the practicality is more important. By wrapping those who have left us in hyperbole and lavishing praise - perhaps only by omitting the obvious negatives - we are also saving ourselves from public condemnation.

Its a way out. A means by which we can socially sanitise. A way to avoid the truth and make us all feel better. Its not something thecricketragic subscribes to.

The modern trend extols even greater virtues to those who leave than they ever actually possessed. Its as though everyone is entitled to the better adjectives, whether earned or not, so words such as "legend, greatness and unique" flow readily in eulogy.

An obvious example has been the time since Phil Hughes succumbed to a dreadfully intrusive and awfully accidental blow last November. A nice bloke, without doubt but he has been lorded and elevated with those same ill placed, over used adjectives, in such a way as would have embarrassed a country kid.

In the coming week and until the last rights are read over the Australians at the Oval, the same will happen in the media, the pubs and the casual conversations about Michael Clarke. "Champion" will be common, "legend" will be regularly sprinkled and "one of our greatest" an almost obligatory phrase. It's not the truth, whether statistically, empirically or philosophically, but it will allow us to be part of the conversation. To agree, is after all, the most important thing.

"The fun left Michael Clarke last November and hasn't returned." 

Michael Clarke has retired from a failing career. Fact.

In thirty innings since his emphatic 148 against England in an Adelaide December of 2013, he has passed fifty only twice. Both were remarkable hundreds - the first a series winning 161 against South Africa at their spiritual home of Newlands and the other an injury and grief ridden effort in his only Test of last summer against India, a week after he spoke at Hughes funeral. Twice in thirty innings is a lot less than fifty three times in his previous 167 Test innings. Worse, his once energetic and instinctive leadership on the field had been replaced by looks to the heavens for understanding and solace at those times when his face wasn't buried in his hands at slip or adopting the teapot stance made popular by a predecessor, Alan Border.

The fun left Michael Clarke last November and hasn't returned. There have been moments in that time but they were sporadic replacements for the constant effervescence of his responsibility-free early career.

He was not destined for the responsibility of captaincy. That he succeeded for so long is testament to his determination and ultimately to his skill. His key strategy as skipper was to throw his audacious talent at the first Test in a series and time and again score the runs that set the tone for a team that doubted itself. Gone were the real champions of the previous era of dominance - McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist, Langer and eventually, Ponting. Clarke was left, with only a few notable exceptions, with dregs. None of those he has captained will truly earn the tag of "greatness" that would place them in line for either the first or second XI's of the best Baggy Greeners. Johnson and Warner might go close to the thirds but not beyond. Smith, still largely to write even the middle chapters of his own book of life, is still an unknown in the pantheon of the best. One doubts he'll make it.

The problem always was that sheer talent and Gen-Y impetuosity were never going to be enough when times got tough. Clarke had lived in the fast lane, liked it and was never likely to endure. He was more substantial than the froth and bubble crowd that his self-appointed best mate Warne is unchallenged King of. It showed in the manner in which he took himself and his wife away from team mates and cameras and got married on his own terms. It was his way of not being owned and it was admirable.

His on field captaincy was inventive but haphazard. When it worked, the constant restlessness with fielding and bowling changed were brilliant and inspired but when he encountered obdurate opponents who could grin and bear at the same time, men whose patience was unyielding, he faltered and the tactics of constant change back-fired. Cardiff provided the most recent example. He didn't understand that some pace bowlers need longer spells and crafted his approach on the shock and awe tactics of Mitch Johnson. If he found fast bowlers' needs hard to understand, he simply had no idea about spinners. Like many of the fleet-footed, he was contemptuous of the slower men when he batted and never trusted those on his own team.

"His on field captaincy was inventive but haphazard." 

His off field captaincy was only as good as the best of the others who shaped the team. Darren Lehmann was very good for Clarke. He was the man manager that Clarke was not. Clarke always had a focus that could drift as easily to matters ex-cricket. It's what caused the famous stoush with Simon Katich and the famous girlfriends and the friendships with all those that glitter. It separated him from the team. The impression he left team mates with was fierce competitor, a team man, but only inside the boundary fence. Once showered, he had other priorities.

Lehmann fixed that at a time when it couldn't have been worse. Clarke largely escaped any responsibility for Homeworkgate. The bums-rushed departure of Mickey Arthur allowed him to skate free of blame. He was the captain and a selector. He did nothing.

Preferring to smile and play happy families, he told Cricket Australia in the aftermath they could stick his selection role where the sun no longer shon. Dark places weren't where he liked to be.

Against Pakistan a year later, Alex Doolan was dropped amid a rare Lehmann lapse into panicked insanity and that short form rodeo star, Glenn Maxwell, put the spurs to the number three horse and promptly came a gutzer. If Doolan shouldn't have been knee jerked from the position on such flimsy evidence, then his replacement should have been the man chosen as the reserve opener or number three for the tour, Phil Hughes. Clarke was the captain. He did nothing.

These deficiencies are not his fault. We can all only play the cards we are dealt and there is no doubt Clarke made best use of what he had in his hand. Like his mentor, the gold-toothed rat, he enjoyed no privilege as a young player and made his way on talent alone. His place in any side was earned and as he progressed, he backed his talent with work ethic. Having scored in debut Tests abroad and then back home, he lost his place in the team and fought back. It was hard and he made sure he reaped the rewards it earned him. Three seasons back, he was the best batsmen in the world. Having guys like Ponting and Hussey and an emerging Warner to bat with was a bonus but credit belongs at his door, where it was due.

From highlights, the world turned. His back was a constant source of concern and pain. Anyone with lower back pain will tell you that standing still for long periods is among the worst activities for such infirmities and yet it was part and parcel of his role at slip, as much for his skill as a catcher as it was for the vantage point it gave him tactically. Hamstrings joined in; disquiet over Ponting's departure, delayed as it was by the former skipper's ego; media pressure, fatherhood and his changing image all started to leaden his boots.

"A broken man falling into pieces in full public view." 

Then Phil Hughes died.

His pain then and now were and are real. When he said, at the time, that he would think about his "little brother" every day for the rest of his life, he wasn't expressing his grief, he was making a promise. But life isn't like that. It's for the living and Clarke, a man whose personality had lent itself to that belief, has instead become pre-occupied by a ghost. He grieved but he won't let go. Like many, he is haunted by Hughes lost opportunities and his own I'll founded feelings of responsibility. This haunting has been obvious, even ten months later, during what he described as the most important cricket series of his career. The restless captaincy, the uncertainty of footwork, the misty or at best, bleary-eyed press conferences, the loss of confidence and enjoyment and the defensiveness of his statements to the media. A broken man falling into pieces in full public view. 

His relief was plain as he spoke in exclusivity to Warne after the debacle of Trent Bridge. We felt relieved watching. There will be no plaintiff cries for him to go on, because who among us could endure watching more of his pain?

Is Michael Clarke a great? His batting average certainly gets him into consideration. His fielding makes an even stronger claim. Perhaps only Mark Taylor or Bob Simpson were better slippers against the slow men. Like men of talent, he had two freakish bowling spells but was not much more than a net bowler (remember, even Allan Border once routed the West Indies). If we judge him as a team mate, there would have to be mixed stories to tell, which only leaves his captaincy.

There is little doubt he did the best he could with a rum bunch. Just as Ponting's record was inflated by the strength of his cattle and his personal pugnacity, Clarke can be proud of the leadership he provided with the bat and on one fine Brisbane afternoon, the support of a team mate many thought he wasn't capable of. When he tersely put England's serial sledger, James Anderson, back in his box and was heard across the nation, he immediately won over the doubters and transformed from Pup to the Big Dog. Like the second innings hundred of yet another first Test, it drew a line in the sinking sand which England never again crossed in that summer.

His retirement announcement, delivered with poise to the representative of the good time he wasn't having and to the benefit of his next employer and not his current, was Clarke at his practical, Gen-Y best. Next summer will be easier. He will be fated in the commentary team at a time when Benaud, Greig and Lawry have left empty seats and grey haired old buggers like me are struggling to keep up with the game. Like ageing commentators, ageing spectators need to make room for a younger crowd who like their cricket packaged and delivered in shorter, predictable parcels.

"... he rose above all of those deficiencies in order to honour his mate"

So is Clarke a great? No, not really. Second tier behind others with more stirring deeds and made more often and who would have died for the team from the moment they pulled on the cap. Technically, he threw his hands at the ball and too often failed to get his head over it. On flat true tracks when you are young and full of confidence, you get away with it. A nice bloke who gave it his best and at times played innings of greatness but flawed by the inadequacies of his generation, the society he was fostered in, his batting technique and responsibility of captaincy. 

Yet, he rose above all of those deficiencies in order to honour his mate and behaved with distinction during the grieving process which almost his entire country experienced. Ultimately, that broad shouldered, honourable acceptance of the load, so foreign to his generation or formative experiences, has him now paying an unfair cost. It has cost him two years of a Test career, but far worse, a great deal of unresolved inner turmoil. 

With no qualification other than my own experience, I recognise the signs of depression hanging about him and admire his solution. The greatness I am not prepared to condone on the basis of his playing career, I would be eager to acknowledge in these latter day elements, these last twelve months of his carriage as a man. He still has some tricky bowling to face yet, but as he found playing cricket, the first part of winning comes in recognising loss.

How could we do otherwise but wish him well?