Chris McGrath: Why can't Clarke win Aussie affections?

The Last Word

If he discovered a cure for cancer in the morning, sorted out global warming in the afternoon, and paid off the national deficit before going to bed, someone would still mutter something about Michael Clarke just showing off.

As a cricketer, it is hard to imagine what more he might do to prise open a place in Australian hearts than score 329 not out (and take Sachin Tendulkar's wicket) in an innings defeat of India on his home ground. Yet his critics are somehow contriving to depict even his decision to declare within a single blow of 334 runs – Bradman's sacred Test best – as a self-serving calculation, the studied gesture of a man trying too hard.

To any fair-minded compatriot, Clarke had already completed his accession – not just as captain, but among the giants of the sport – with an innings of 151 out of 284 at Cape Town in November, on a pitch that would devour the next 21 wickets for 117 runs. But many would sooner recall the man with whom he shared a century partnership on his Test debut, Simon Katich, who notoriously grabbed Clarke by the throat in those same Sydney dressing rooms. Katich rendered a service on behalf of all those who found some vague but distasteful lack in the future captain, compared with his predecessors: Ponting, Waugh, Taylor, Border.

Clarke had requested the team victory song by 11pm, so that he could join his glamorous partner for drinks. That was five hours after the match ended, but the newspaper that broke the story shared Katich's disgust, disparaging the vice-captain's eligibility to succeed Ponting: "Clarke is media-savvy, has the cool looks and the hot girlfriend, the tattoos, the slick image and flash car. Together, the package is near-perfect for the job. Yet what he doesn't have is the man."

The man. It is impossible to read any profile of Clarke without stumbling across one word. From its mystifying emergence, when apparently suggestive of some unhealthy Freudian obsession with trains and tunnels, "metrosexual" has become a standard epithet for those stretching traditional gender roles. Its most commonly cited prototypes are Clarke and David Beckham, who have made similarly conspicuous, self-conscious "lifestyle choices".

Perhaps they see proven prowess in arenas of masculine endeavour as a sufficient guarantee of virility to indulge securely in all this effete shopping and consuming and preening. From proletarian beginnings, both trace a further lineage to the urban chic of ages past. The dandy had too much ironic detachment for sport, but would share with these athletes a love of display that subverts traditional masculinity. Where the male has been aggressive and desirous, the metrosexual instead becomes a passive idol, himself to be admired and desired. Enough to make any self-respecting Bloke queasy.

The syndrome has evolved in sport as in broader society. Jim Palmer, a great baseball pitcher of the 1970s, posed in jockey shorts. Dennis Rodman proved as comfortable wearing a wedding dress as green hair, albeit he exculpated himself this week by announcing his intention to start a topless women's basketball team. As the most aesthetically gorgeous of sports, however, cricket has a particular tradition of narcissism.

In fact, come to think of it, doesn't the Australia game have a rather more obvious metrosexual? In his weird metamorphosis under the spell of Liz Hurley, Shane Warne is slowly morphing from surfer slob into an unnerving mutation of Cecil Beaton. Yet he can do no wrong, even as Clarke can do no right.

It's all very odd. With an average of 62 in 17 Test innings as captain, you would think Australian pragmatists might pardon Clarke his perceived heterodoxies. Instead they agonise pathetically about his image. They were appalled by his admission that he sobbed on the sofa with his father after losing his Test place in 2005. Some may even have been mischievously gratified that his Herculean deeds this week were played out against swathes of pink, from the stands to the stumps (in support of the Jane McGrath cancer foundation). Yet here is a man who sacrificed the joyous freedom of his game in the cause of a team in decline; who is proving a most adept captain, not least in respectful rehabilitation of Ponting.

Doubtless those who have booed him to the crease reckon his girlfriends look just too good in lingerie; that his declaration was just too artful. Never mind that Mark Taylor, who declared overnight when level with Bradman's 334, had first essayed a few lusty blows in the gloaming. Never mind that Clarke could have eclipsed Matthew Hayden's 380 against Zimbabwe, or even Brian Lara's 400. Never mind how Australians shook their heads when Lara batted into a third day, and so left his bowlers inadequate time to win the match.

Clarke willingly eschewed the chance to become only the 11th man in Test history to set its highest score. The third was Tip Foster, whose debut 287 in 1903 remained an SCG record until this week. When you see he died in 1914, at 36, you assume he must have been a senseless victim of the trenches. In fact, he had acute diabetes.

He could not be cured; nor could Jane McGrath, nor could Gary Ablett. And their different tragedies may make the observations above seem deplorably frivolous. But surely their loss also commands due perspective on the glories of Clarke – a man who is determined to explore his full capacity, not just as a cricketer, but as a human being. Beaton had some famous counsel that might have been written for "Pup", though Foster and others taken prematurely would also see its merit, seeing how brief our time can be. "Be daring, be different, be impractical," Beaton urged. "Be anything that will assert imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary."

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