After just under 11 years, with 8643 runs and 28 centuries—scored at the healthy average of 49.10—the international career of Michael Clarke has come to an end. I suspect that when the dust has settled, and his place in Australian cricket history is decided, that he will be remembered as the last of Australia's Golden Generation: the all-conquering team that began to fragment after the 2005 Ashes but rallied for a triumphant send off in the white wash of England that followed.
Tactically, I consider him a better captain than either Waugh or Ponting. But by the time he took over cracks were beginning to form. They only widened, leaving him with an unenviable record of losing the Ashes to England four times. Despite our increasing rivalry with India, against whom he turned in some his greatest performances, that is the standard by which Australian captains are judged and will remain a blot on his record.
Even with that caveat, he will be able to look back with pride on a glittering career that has seen runs scored when it mattered, some match winning performances with the ball and time as the best fielder in the side. If it weren't for the deterioration of his back, I think he would have finished with a plus fifty batting average and, on his day, was a magnificent batsman to watch—as good a player of spin as has picked up the willow. But his lack of mobility saw him pinned to the crease far too much and left him vulnerable to the short ball. Now seems the right time to finish.
Despite all his achievements, though, the Australian public never seemed to fully embrace him, and many of those who did never stopped seeing him as "Pup"—the impetuous and flighty youngster. I think this does him a vast disservice and is based on some unfair perceptions.
Old dog, new tricks
Clarke made a splash at the beginning of his career, a young tyro breaking into an established team. His blond hair and flashy earring set him apart from some of the more seasoned and traditional players. None more so than Darren Lehmann who was so impressed with the rookie that he suggested making way for him. Clarke played with a freedom and joy that was intoxicating to watch, truly announcing himself with a breathtaking innings in India. Quite rightly he was seen as the future of Aussie cricket, and heir to the batting crown of men like Ponting.
One would have thought the fans would have loved such an electric and attacking cricketer, but there has always been a degree of reservation. Perhaps it was a distrust of someone seen as a bit flashy and self-absorbed, or the cockiness of youth rubbing people up the wrong way. Even as Clarke matured, shed the blonde hair and bling, got a real haircut and knuckled down, people were unable to move on. And to give credit where credit is due, he worked hard on his batting, played tough innings in tough situations. In short, he grew up. But like the older relatives who never see you as anything other than the little kid, a large chunk of the cricket going public always saw him as Pup.
What kind of bloke is this?
But I think Clarke's real crime was that he was seen as different from the cricketers we wanted. Australians have long been in love with the idea of the "typical bloke" sports star, the kind of guy who would eat a couple of meat pies and go out and kick a bag of goals, or sneak a smoke between overs. Lehmann himself was highly regarded for preferring an ice cold beer to an ice bath.
Clarke didn't fit this mould. It started with the hair and the bling, but there was no doubt he was considered more a metrosexual than a man's man. Well groomed, a celebrity girlfriend, dabbling in real estate and probably more of a wine drinker than a beer lover - people asked, "what sort of bloke is that?" Clarke was often compared unfavourably to more traditional characters like Katich—the majority of people took Katich's side in the famous dust up they had over the team song.
In a glass darkly
This is, of course, extremely unfair—not least because the Australian cricketer that people thought Clarke should be, no longer exists. Cricketers are now all high performance athletes, their diets and exercise regulated to the nth degree, and renegades who don't fit the mould of behaviour on and off the field are either forced out (like Symonds), buckle under (like Warner), or never make it (like Cosgrove). Clarke was merely an example of a professional cricketer who maximised his playing potential, and his earnings. Someone like Lehmann would never fit in now, something he is discovering as coach.
But, unfairest of all is that the biggest reason for the public's unease with Clarke is that he holds up a mirror to our changing society. We want to believe that we are still the ocker blokes who don't care for fripperies, but if you look round you see that we have moved on. Footballers sport elaborately moussed hairstyles, hipsters spend as much time debating craft beers as any Frenchman does wine, and the great Aussie dream isn't a family home but an investment portfolio.
Whether these changes are for good or ill is a discussion for another day, but it is not fair to judge Clarke for not being that Aussie bloke that our society is pushing to the fringes. Instead he should be remembered as a cricketer who gave his all on the field in the face of often difficult circumstances and who stepped up to lead during one of the sport's most tragic moments. A bloke willing to cry in front of a whole nation for a fallen friend is a good enough bloke for me.
David Goodwin is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. He is a cricket tragic, having run a cricket club and a cricket association, and attempts to hit sixes and bowl legspin as often as possible
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