Clarke ready to bloom at Rose Bowl

County Championship: Australia's latest wonder-bat happy at the Hampshire finishing school

Shane Warne comes into the pavilion at the Rose Bowl, cap on, collar up, wrap-around sunglasses, as if he might be hiding something. Himself perhaps. Michael Clarke, who has nothing to hide, arrives wearing a baseball cap which covers an unruly mop of blond hair. He was 23 earlier this month; the complexion is unblemished by life. Everything is upfront, right down to the diamantine stud in the left ear.

Michael Clarke of New South Wales, Australia's one-day team and Hampshire, is said by shrewd judges Down Under - like our John Benaud - to be the best young cricketer in the world. An attacking right-handed batsman and a slow left-arm bowler, he has arrived at the Rose Bowl as part of his further education.

International commitments with Australia's one-day team meant he played only three four-day Pura Cup games last season. He is in England to play more long cricket. "I'm going to try to bat for as long as I can," he announces. Some Second Division bowlers will grow tired of his baby face this summer.

Strong Australian links guided him towards Hampshire. The physio, Patrick Farhart, is a colleague at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and Clarke got to know Warne a little on the recent tour of Sri Lanka, where - apart from 5 for 35 at Dambulla - he had his first modest one-day series. He was impressed by Murali's turn, but insists that Warne is the greatest bowler in the world: "One of the nicest guys I've ever met," he says. And he likes what he has seen in England. The facilities get 10 out of 10 and he greets his team-mates as they arrive for practice as though they are old mates.

They would have admired the 75 against Durham last week when the ball was seaming; and forgotten the second-innings duck. Hampshire won, after all.

Apart from 15 days with Australia's one-day squad in Zimbabwe, Clarke ought to be an ornament at Hampshire this summer. Any doubts about the tour? "It's not up to me to judge," he says. His international cricket has been impressive so far (658 runs at 38.70 and 17 wickets at 29.17 in 25 one-day internationals), but we are still talking to an uncomplicated young man who decided he wanted to be a professional cricketer when he was 13 and is disinclined to let anything to do with real life get in the way.

Clarke was born in Liverpool in southern NSW, and, like many talented Australian cricketers, the game is in the blood. His father was an accomplished grade cricketer, who played rugby league in the winter. Michael joined a club when he was seven and, since he went to state school where opportunities were limited, he grew up in club cricket, playing for state teams from the age of 12. He can recall the day when he was 13 when he decided he definitely wanted to be a professional.

He left school at 17 and was signed by NSW 18 months later. In a brief first-class career, spanning 68 innings, he already has eight hundreds and 10 fifties.

"It's been my life," he says. "This is what I wanted to be." The remarkable promise has already been recognised by the biggest sporting sponsorship deal in Australian cricket history. Dunlop-Slazenger are paying him A$1.25 million (£516,000) to use their equipment for the next three years. He feels flattered. So he ought.

The deal was negotiated by Clarke's manager, Neil D'Costa, a family friend whom he has known since he was seven. D'Costa was his coach when he was a schoolboy and his employer in a leisure centre when he quit school. Now they share a house in Sydney and D'Costa still acts as coach as well as manager. "He's my idol. The greatest person I've ever met," says Clarke.

Who comes next? He looks up to Ricky Ponting, for having recovered so completely from being dropped early in his Test career. He loves Michael Slater's energy, and the Waughs of course, Steve and Mark. But at 23, you feel that Clarke is already his own man, charting his course rather than following others. That, though, is as far as individuality goes. He is a conventional young Australian who thinks it is the greatest country in the world. "I love my cars. Love going to the beach. I love my clothes, shopping." He reads sports education books and cricket biographies.

There are no surprises, and it would be a real surprise if there were any secrets. He trains hard, works hard in the nets and when he gets to the middle he plays the game his way and lets things happen, but he is already confident that the preparation has gone right. Things normally happen fast. He is an aggressive batsman who backs his own ability. "I think I'm a positive person in general," says Michael Clarke.

England have still to discover this phenomenon. But they will.

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