The Quandary of Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke was the captain no one wanted.  He polarised the community like a politician. People just didn’t seem to like him.  Too metrosexual.  Too soft.  And a child’s nickname, Pup.


There’s no way he should be captain, was a common refrain.  Asking the howlers why, didn’t get an educated answer.  They just didn’t rate him.


It didn’t matter.  Steve Waugh was Clarke’s first Australian captain.  Waugh was the first to publicly say Clarke would captain Australia.  A great player and captain, Waugh was an astute judge of talent, tactical ability and confidence.


And Clarke oozed confidence.  After being selected for his debut in 2004, he said he didn’t want to get dropped.  Staying in the side seemed his divine right.  Two years later, like a lot of great players, he was dropped.


Like a lot of great players, he came back and cemented his spot.


It didn’t matter.  The country seemed divided.  He’d been carried when out of form.  He couldn’t demand his place yet demanded the captaincy by profile.  Australia wants an aggressive, fearless leader.


Clarke seemed certain of the captaincy just because he wanted it.


People overlooked his ability, his tactical nous.  The dislike seemed based on his demeanour and profile, the former beau of a hyped bikini model, a good-looking product user without an ounce of the grunt required to lead Australia.


His dressing room stoush with Simon Katich further embittered the doubters.  His relationship with Lara Bingle, and its demise, offended everyone.


And Clarke didn’t have an angry face like Ian Chappell, Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.  Those men were arrogant in manner and assessment.  They brutalised and inspired.  They exuded confidence, determination and bully.


Clarke exuded cologne and hair product.  The tattooed arm didn’t provided any menace.


Community perception was Clarke lacked toughness, unable to look and talk mean, as the Australian captain needs to do occasionally.  He didn’t have Mark Taylor’s bully determination and guffaw approach to relationships with teammates.


Clarke had nothing, the people said.  They didn’t respect him and didn’t want him to be captain.


They didn’t see him as they did Chappell and Border, who rebuilt the Australian Test side.  They couldn’t see him as Taylor, Waugh and Ponting, who took great teams and made them better.


But Clarke did all of it, without the bluff and blarney.


He didn’t need that stuff.  He was as inspirational, tactically brilliant, determined and dogged as his predecessors.


And now he’s gone.


Trevor Barsby – 2010


Back in December, 2010, Trevor Barsby quit as Queensland coach.  Not long after, he was featured in a story about Australia’s heir apparent, given Ricky Ponting was soon to retire.


Barsby, a former shield player never considered for the Test side, is England’s current coach.  In the story, Barsby questioned Clarke’s qualifications as captain and said Shane Watson could do the job.


‘The only way to find out if Shane would be a good Test captain is to throw him in there and see if he sinks or swims,’ Barsby said.  ‘We’ve been told for years now that Michael Clarke will succeed Ricky, but I find that an interesting comment.’


Barsby, having coached Watson, had no doubt about his skills but wondered if he could lead the team.


‘I know he has a good cricket brain,’ Barsby said.  ‘He could do the job in that regard.  So it’s not so much about Shane the cricketer, its Shane Watson as a man manager.’


Man management is everything.  Barsby wasn’t sure Clarke had the right personality to lead.


Barsby was wrong about Watson.  He was wrong about Clarke, too.  But he wasn’t wrong in accepting the job to coach England.  His words put Clarke to the sword five years ago.  His team has done it now.


Clarke is gone.  Barsby helped set it up.  If he didn’t rate Clarke then, surely he doesn’t now.


Pup – as captain


Clarke thrived in a game where one ball can ruin it all.  He played under constant duress of a perpetual back injury.  After guiding Ricky Ponting to retirement, Clarke hit a horde of runs.


He led a successful Australian team and developed the stare.  He learned to frown.  He learned toughness.  His fighting ability and profligacy began to impress a nation.


When he told Jimmy Anderson to get ready for a broken fucking arm, it was clear Clarke was long beyond the selfish enthusiasm the public had tagged him with.


He was the captain of Australia.  Worthy.  Respected.


Then he got fined and had to apologise and Australia’s community ragged against the injustice.


This was our captain, and Anderson had threatened to punch George Bailey.  Clarke was doing what a captain should in standing up for his teammate and nation.


His aggro seemed the turning point.  A country cheered where they once jeered.


When Phil Hughes died, Clarke made people cry with his eulogy.  His importance, in that moment, far outweighed his career and captaincy.


When he scored a broken-back Test hundred against India weeks after the funeral, a nation grieved with Clarke.


When he wrenched his hamstring from the bone in the same Test, we willed his recovery.  When he held the World Cup aloft, we gushed how wonderful it was.


Clarke, by deed, had imposed himself on a country.  A man once derided was a man now admired.  His reinvention was complete.


People started to say it didn’t matter what he did off the field, he was a legend.


Clarke retired from one-day cricket to prolong his Test career.  No one complained he was selfish.  But he went to England with nothing left, a shell of a man determined to retain the Ashes.


That brittle shell everyone questioned all those years ago finally shattered.  The Ashes are lost.  It hasn’t been one ball that’s ruined it all.  It hasn’t been enough balls.  Clarke doesn’t look like scoring runs.  His form has contributed to the malady.


And that’s the problem.  Clarke expected to score too.  He couldn’t, so that is it.  He is gone.


It’s been a week since he stepped down.  Already former teammates, coaches and journalists are lining up to kick him.


His demise has left him vulnerable to all those stories of disharmony and selfishness that rang out years ago.  Those old refrains, that he wasn’t respected enough to be captain, are resurfacing.


For Clarke, it will never matter what he did.  It matters more who he is.  It may not be fair, but cricket is a tough game.


Steve Smith is set to be announced as captain.  It’s a transition without shock.  Smith has been captain before.  He’s been in great form, aside from the past few innings.


There is a difference though.  No one is saying Smith doesn’t deserve the job, like they did when Clarke got it.  No one is going to boo Smith next summer.


People already respect Steve Smith.  Clarke, with his magazine profile and rich hype, just didn’t have that instant appeal.


It doesn’t matter.  He was a great batsman.  He was captain of Australia.  As captain, he had success with teams that can’t compare favourably with those of Australia’s greatest eras.


Well done, him…

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. It seemed that from the moment he was selected, M Clarke was destined to be a polarising figure. Please do not take this as in any way being sexist, but his relationship with Lara Bingle polarised him further. There was a feeling that our Test cricketers should not behaving like their private life is tabloid fodder! Unless you are Warney, of course.
    Clarke was the best batsman – by far – of his generation. Australia has a history of making its best batsman the skipper – and in this instance there was literally no other choice! S Watson (no relation I hope) – don’t make me laugh!
    Unfortunately Clarke proved to be a polarising figure within the change room as well: just ask S Katich & MJ Hussey!
    P.S: T Bayliss, not T Barsby?

  2. Smokie,
    Damn I hate getting things wrong…
    Thanks for the correction. Of course, it ruins my whole story!!!

  3. Good stuff Matt.

    Hopefully Clarke will, one day, get the credit he deserves – although it might take a while for all the nonsense circulating at present to die down, and I suspect he’ll be blamed for everything, from Australia’s future test results to global warming, for a while yet.

    His peak ( around 2012-14) was supreme. Some of the most thrilling play I’ve seen (non Brian Lara category). He also seems to have annoyed quite a few people over the years by, among other things, refusing to conform, at least in part, to the Aussie cricket team’s boorish, juvenile, alcoholic culture. He may well have been difficult to get along with (for some), but I admired him for this.

    The stuff in the (mostly Murdoch) press about players partners causing division or distraction is pathetic (and not at all surprising, given the source) – and is pretty clearly aimed at Clarke. Long may places like the Almanac provide a counterpoint to the bile and petty nonsense of the tabloid press!

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