Written by Sriram Veera | Melbourne | March 29, 2015 9:24 am
“Heir is Mr unpopular,” a headline screamed in a local Australian daily when Michael Clarke replaced Ricky Ponting as Australia’s captain. They even did a national poll that saw less than 20% people wanting him as the skipper. One newspaper even called him a Tosser.” (Full Coverage| Venues | Fixtures)
“The problem with Clarke is that no one can relate to him because no one really knows who he is,” a daily attacked. “He is part Western Sydney, part Bondi beach and part fashionista who likes Wests Tigers, fast cars and loads of tattoos. And who knows what else?” That was then.
Slowly, he has turned the tide, first through cricket wins and then finally, in the way he handed the tragic crisis of Philip Hughes. People liked what they saw: a tearful captain leading the mourning of a fallen team-mate. And Clarke knows it. On the day he announced his ODI retirement, when asked about his legacy, he said: “A lot of my legacy will be based around what happened recently off the field with my little brother.”
How does one see this ODI retirement, its timing in particular? Some cricketers say a World Cup final is the biggest night of their career, and Clarke had a word with his team-mates some 10 minutes before he walked up to meet the press. His critics will see this as him hijacking the World Cup final and making it all about him. Couldn’t he have waited a few days to announce it? It would have been different if his team-mates knew about it before at least; some of them were shocked apparently when Clarke told them.
He isn’t necessarily a popular captain in the team, if you were to believe the Australian journalists. The entire Homework gate in India might have claimed their coach Mickey Arthur as its victim, but it was done with the captain’s consent. It was as much Clarke’s decision as it was Arthur’s. It was Clarke who called Shane Watson a “cancer” according to the report filed by Arthur. Clarke never denied it; it was in the leaking of the report that his grouse lay. Calling Watson such a term isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the captain has the right to be disappointed by his team-mate, who he felt was not pulling his weight in the team, but the feeling that came out then was that Clarke wasn’t a man universally liked by his team-mates. Some of them were so scarred by the entire episode that they spoke about “performance anxiety”.
It’s Darren Lehmann who came as coach and changed things around. He made Australian dressing room a fun place to be. Someone as new to the team as Aaron Finch has spoken about lucky he was to come in when Lehmann was at the helm. The turnaround started after the dismal Champions Trophy in 2013 where Australia, the great Australian side, looked like a team from England. They were that bad, almost scared to express themselves. Clarke must take a lot of blame for that. He didn’t. Arthur got nailed instead. It was the Ashes triumph that started to turn the public tide against him and then came Hughes’ death, which Clarke handled with a lot of admirable poise and sensitivity and people began to warm up to him.
So it’s not a surprise that a cricketer mentions the off-field incident of how he handled the death of a team-mate, and helmed the national mourning, as his legacy. It was perhaps Clarke’s finest hour.
In 2012, he was routinely abused in the pubs across the various Australian cities when India toured this country. Australians like their captains to be earthy. Clarke was a brand right from the start of his career. He comes across earnest in press conferences, often too earnest say his critics.
What about his ODI batting? It’s almost a redundant style, especially after Steve Smith has owned the No 3. Spot and has become the premier ODI batsman in terms of handling spin. Clarke was never a great ODI batsman; he had made his debut in 2003 but was dropped out of that year’s World Cup where Australia didn’t lose a single game. His batting won’t be missed by this team. Hopefully, he will get a chance to have one last hurrah with the bat but for him to star it might mean Australia will have to get into early trouble and he is needed to bail them out. If things go well in the top order, Clarke will drop himself down the order so that the big-hitters can have a go ahead of him.
All said then done, this is good time for Clarke to retire from ODIs. There might be some legitimate questions regarding the timing of it but not many in Aussie fraternity would be really surprised that Clarke chose to go this way.