Ashes 2013: The enigma that is the Australia captain Michael Clarke

He is one of the best batsmen in the world, an intense and driven captain, but there is something about Pup that alienates the Australian public, press and his team-mates

Late last year, Australia’s most venerable newspaper issued a public apology to Michael Clarke. “You’ve started your new life with your lovely new wife,” it said, “now it’s time we started our relationship with you afresh.”

It will be fascinating to discover what the Sydney Morning Herald has to say if Clarke leads Australia to their seventh successive defeat in the third Test at Old Trafford, starting on Thursday. Perhaps it may feel the need to start things afresh again.

There has been only one such  sequence of results for Australia  before, between 1885 and 1888 under three different captains. For it to be repeated in a match which would coincide with the surrender of the Ashes for the third successive time, which itself has not happened for 32 years, would inevitably prompt a period of agonised soul-searching.

For most of his career Clarke has had a troubled relationship with the Australian public, media and, reports frequently suggest, with a substantial proportion of his team-mates. Anecdotal evidence abounds.

Talk to Aussies about Clarke and most seem not to warm to him in a way that they do with most of their captains. In the end they loved Ricky Ponting. They cannot quite put their finger on it but it is all mixed up with Clarke’s liking for flash cars, his tattoos, a one-time celebrity lifestyle which led to him appearing in as many gossip columns as sports pages, an obsession with image, a perceived aloofness.

There has always been, it seems, a desire to get the goods on him. This was no better exemplified than by a story that did the rounds in the wake of the venerated batsman Mike Hussey’s retirement, only days, as it happens, after the SMH’s announcement of its fresh start.

Hussey was one of the toughest but nicest guys ever to play cricket for Australia and when he decided to call it a day in January, following the heavy series defeat of Sri Lanka, it was natural that he would go out in the traditional way, sharing a few beers with his team-mates in the dressing room. But it soon emerged that Clarke was supposed to have marred the occasion by insisting that he went to party on the yacht Seahorse, owned by the media mogul James Packer.

Typical, it was felt. Yet it was not true. As Hussey observed recently: “It was completely misreported and it was really disappointing and put a bit of a sour note on it. I have spoken to Michael about how it was reported and we were both disappointed. It was completely incorrect. I had a fantastic experience, I spent a lot of time in the dressing room with the boys, which is what I wanted, and then had some fantastic time with my family. I got everything I wanted out of the night and so did the team.”

Clarke took over the captaincy at the end of the 2010-11 Ashes series when Ponting was injured for the last Test in Sydney. He was booed when he went out to bat and attempts to blame the Barmy Army were debunked when it was clear the noise was coming from the Australian section of the crowd. He was jeered again in the one-day international in Brisbane.

It was clear he had work to do and in the next year or so he let his bat do the talking. An epic innings of 329 not out in Sydney was the catalyst for a run of form not seen in Australia since the days of Don Bradman.

The event, for that was what it was as Clarke gave interviews mid-innings wearing his Baggy Green, seemed the purer for being scored with a clean bat, free of logos. He was between sponsors at the time.

Three more double hundreds followed in his next seven Test matches. The captaincy and marriage to a childhood sweetheart, Kyly Boldy, may have changed everything. It was where the newspaper public apology came in.

But now, months later, his team are under pressure as never before. They have given a smart impression of unity since the sensational sacking of the coach Mickey Arthur barely a fortnight before the Ashes and his replacement by Darren Lehmann.

The bitter pill that must be swallowed with these protestations, however, is that they are 2-0 down in an Ashes series. This follows a 4-0 hammering in India in February and March.

Having made a fist of the first Test of this summer almost solely because of a unique innings of 98 by their 19-year-old No 11 batsman Ashton Agar, whose place is now in jeopardy, the tourists were dismantled in the second at Lord’s.

The last time Australia lost the first two matches of an Ashes series was in 1978-79, when a B team of misfits, drafted into service because of the establishment of Kerry Packer’s breakaway World Series Cricket which took all the stars, found itself outmatched by England. Before that it was 1936-37 when Australia, led, cajoled and  inspired by Bradman, came back to win 3-2.

If Australia are to have the remotest chance of winning this series – and England are now 1-33 to prevail – Clarke, by a distance their most accomplished batsman, will have to play like Bradman. There are early signs that the captaincy and the constant turmoil are reaching his soul and his form. He made a half-century in the second innings at Lord’s which was a mixture of self-denial and unconvincing, but England showed they were prepared to rough him up.

The stories about unrest keep on coming. The latest was revealed in court papers before the Lord’s Test in which an embittered Arthur reported that Clarke had told him that Shane Watson was “a cancer on the team”. This threw to the fore once more the idea that the Australia dressing room is factionalised.

By now, Clarke and Watson, the focal points of the schism, could  announce their intention to live next door to each other for the rest of their lives, so mutually appreciative and admiring are they, but it would be  assumed it was based on the dictum of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.

As an individual and captain, Clarke is intense, earnest, serious. He never dodges a question about the cricket even if the answer, full and informative though it may sound at the time, does not sometimes add up to much.

It seems preposterous that a man of 32 is still referred to as Pup, a sobriquet bestowed when he was the golden boy of the next generation who joined an all-conquering Test team in 2004. Child stars have to shed their former image, as the Bette Davis classic film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? showed.

Clarke made a hundred on his Test debut in Bangalore (and another on his first appearance in a home Test six weeks later) but the nation even then was hardly overflowing with gratitude. He is a shrewd tactician – and needs to be – and appears to treat his charges with affection. But he won himself few plaudits when his chronic back condition reared up again at the start of the England tour. It required treatment away from the team in London and there were mutterings of irritation and disbelief when Clarke was photographed at a charity match for his friend Shane Warne.

The pair were close when both were in the Australia team and Warne  regularly praises Clarke’s leadership style. That style has never been under closer scrutiny. If it makes the first  anniversary of the fresh start it can survive anything. But first it has to  survive this week.

Captain’s knock: Clarke’s test record since 2012

Michael Clarke had a wonderful 2012 but there are signs the pressure of captaincy is getting to his batting

Jan 2012 v India (Sydney) 329*

Jan India (Perth) 18

Jan India (Adelaide) 210 & 37

Apr West Indies (Bridgetown) 73 & 6

Apr West Indies (P of Spain) 45 & 15

Apr West Indies (Roseau) 24 & 25 Nov South Africa (Brisbane) 259*

Nov S Africa (Adelaide) 230 & 38

Nov South Africa (Perth) 5 & 44

Dec Sri Lanka (Hobart) 74 & 57*

Dec Sri Lanka (Melbourne) 106

Jan 2013 Sri Lanka (Sydney)50 & 29

Feb India (Chennai)130 & 31

Mar India (Hyderabad)91 & 16

Mar India (Mohali)0 & 18

July England (Trent Bridge)0 & 23

July England (Lord’s)28 & 51

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