Michael Clarke: Last Of The Old School?

His body is failing him and it is proving a struggle to keep up with the run rate, a situation many retiring batsmen have found themselves in before. But Michael Clarke was playing in a new game, an evolved game. Run rates are leaping northwards while the tolerance for mistakes, even for cricket, becomes less and less. 

Retiring from the one day format after the 2015 World Cup final to prolong his test career, particularly in preparation for the Ashes mid-year, Clarke was adamant in his press conference.

“I know I’ve made the right decision.”

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect I’ll be fit and healthy and available for the next World Cup, so I believe it’s the right time,” the outgoing captain remarked.

Looking over footage of the 90-run partnership between Michael Bevan and Steve Waugh in the 1999 World Cup semi final against South Africa, there was a stark contrast to the attitudes expressed towards the outgoing Australian ODI captain. This innings dug the Aussies out of a predicament at 4/68 to post what was still a meager total of 213 against the powerful South Africans. The total was considered short, but utterly defendable, just as New Zealand would have considered their chances on Sunday night in the 2015 final against Australia.

The innings by Bevan of 65 from 101 however was heralded as ‘patient’, ‘professional’ and ‘classy’. This type of innings is becoming redundant and viewed by today’s standards as the old dude dancing to One Direction at 2 am in the middle of a pub dance floor (not that cricket is in that poor a condition). 

Things change, and cricket is changing. But to call Michael Clarke’s batting style into question is not only disrespectful to his game, his career and achievements, but to the game of cricket. Those respecting the game will never neglect its history, just like a beautiful cover drive to the boundary will always take preference over a reverse-sweep for six. While the game changes, respect will always remain part of the foundations.

You only have to look over the career of the 18th Australian ODI captain to realise that there is little wrong with how it reads. 7981 runs at an average of 44.58 from 245 matches, 73 as captain, could speak for itself. But, it was Clarke’s professionalism and delicate, precise and at times sickly attention to detail that provided a polish to his game that has made him one of the greats.

Ultimately, Clarke filled the gap in 2003 of another technically gifted batsman in Damien Martin. The 21-year old Clarke fitted into the classy Australian squad built around high expectations, professionalism and the pursuit of excellent cricket under Ricky Ponting. With his technically proficient batting and pace-variant slow left-arm orthodox bowling, Clarke provided an aggressive all-round quality to go with his endearing personal nature.

It took Clarke 28 innings to hit his first ODI century. He joined Adam Gilchrist as opener against Zimbabwe in the 3rd ODI at Harare in May 2004 and hit an unbeaten 105* from 102 balls that helped the Aussies to chase down the target of 197 in 30 overs. There is no doubt his aggressive approach, along with many others of his era contributed greatly to where we find cricket today in the short and long form of the game.

While he could not make the first XI in the victorious 2003 campaign, Clarke’s 2007 World Cup contribution included 436 runs at an average of 87.20 with a couple of handy wickets. In Australia’s poor 2011 campaign, Clarke still fired with an average of 72 as the Aussies were knocked out in the quarter finals.

Clarke took over from outgoing ODI captain Ricky Ponting after the 2011 World Cup exit, as part of the ‘4-year plan’ in preparation for the 2015 World Cup. Following the same pattern now, Clarke is making way for generation next in the 2019 tournament to be held in England.

There is no denying the battle Clarke has fought with his body throughout his career, particularly in the last 4 years. In an effort to maintain his high standards both on and off the pitch, the Aussie captain’s body copped the brunt. Ongoing back and hamstring issues has seen Clarke limit his bowling and more-recently push further down the batting order to make way for the ‘free-swingers’ in pursuit of runs.

“I’ve had injury concerns since I was 17 years of age and I’ve managed to play over 200 one-dayers and over 100 Test matches,” Clarke said in the press conference announcing his retirement.

Clarke joined Kumar Sangakara and Shahid Afridi in retirement after the 2015 World Cup. These two batsmen that have provided many significant contributions to the game through their powerful batting and enigmatic presence on the field. Along with Clarke, they have fought until the end to keep up with the blistering pace set by bigger bats, field restrictions that isolate bowlers and smaller grounds… and not been found wanting. 

Clarke’s dogged nature was presented most clearly during the 2015 World Cup campaign, where he somehow managed to reproduce his fitness to an acceptable level in order to once again compete on the world stage. To add to his own personal fitness issues, the loss of a best mate and Australian team member in Phillip Hughes devastated Clarke. Painfully, the captain fulfilled his media role and maintained his personal privileges during the funeral service, delivery an emotional eulogy. 

Just as he refused to do amid this cricketing tragedy, the captain did not simply sit back and enjoy the ride in what turned out to be his ODI send-off.

His important 68 against Sri Lanka helped his side to a whopping 376 in a match they won by only 64 runs. He will be forever remembered for the way he battled through an early onslaught in the final to hit a game-high 74 runs from 72 balls, including 10 boundaries and 1 six to set up the match for his side on the evening of his departure from the one day format.

Clarke must have had the words of the journalist who challenged his “redundant batting style” ringing in his ears. He bit his tongue in that moment and chewed his lip when facing Trent Boult on Sunday in a fiery spell of short, pace bowling. I had Tom Petty in my head as I watched the captains knock. “No, I won’t… back… down.” True grit and determination embodied his one day career and he will be remembered as yet another Australian captain who stares at adversity and stoically meditates, “I’ll stand my ground… and I won’t back down.”

 

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