Clarke the sun prince from Sydney

Australia's wonderbat: Boy with quick hands and a quicker smile is captivating his country
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The Independent Online

He is 23 years old and next Thursday's game against Pakistan will be only his seventh Test, but Michael Clarke is already an Australian icon. He likes fast cars, loud music, and new clothes; he cares deeply about the spiky highlights in his hair, and cannot be bothered yet with golf or girlfriends. Michael Clarke is a young man in a hurry, and so far every stage in this brief career - even a ghastly time at Hampshire last summer - has gone strictly according to plan.

The incalculable factor has been luck, and Clarke has had plenty of that. He made his Test debut for Australia against India at Bangalore in October because Ricky Ponting was injured. His one-day debut, against England in January 2003, happened because Darren Lehmann was suspended, and an injury to Damien Martyn led to his inclusion in the team to tour the West Indies last year. But luck matters only when you take full advantage of it, as Clarke has.

The fast bowler Brett Lee was, until recently, Australia's "Next Big Thing", but Lee is a 26-year-old now, and he has been succeeded by the Golden Boy, who scored 151 on his Test debut and 141 in his first Test at home, against New Zealand in Brisbane. When he was out at Adelaide a couple of weeks ago, playing across the line, for only seven, the crowd was palpably dejected (me too). That failure brought Clarke's Test average down to 60.88 in 10 innings.

The ingredients of a calamity are present in such a spectacular start, but Clarke appears to be immune to the snare of arrogance and exhibitionism. His Australian team-mate Justin Langer, who has toured twice with Clarke, is unqualified in his admiration for his behaviour: for getting up in the West Indies at dawn to honour Australia's war dead on Anzac Day; for his love of his family; and for his ability to use his feet to play spin.

No doubt flaws will emerge, on and off the field. In fact, they already have. Last summer, Clarke signed to play county cricket for Hampshire. It was a salutary experience, and next summer England might learn to regret the part the Rose Bowl played in his further education. "He is still learning his game, and he has got an unquenchable thirst to be better and better every day," says John Buchanan, Australia's wily coach.

Influential Australian coaches had nursed reservations about the then 21-year-old on his one-day debut, asserting that he had been promoted too soon. After all, his record in domestic cricket was not great (his career average is below 40); and batsmen like Brad Hodge, Michael Hussey and Martin Love all had better figures. But on that debut, Buchanan noted Clarke's exuberance and his desire to take the game by the scruff of the neck: "He looked as though he had been there forever," he says. The unanswered question was whether Clarke knew how to play a long innings - in other words, could he make the transition to Tests?

In a recent interview with the Sydney magazine Inside Edge, Clarke said: "The hardest thing for me when I went over to play county cricket was finding a decent hairdresser." Besides natural timing, Clarke also has a sense of irony. Initially, Hampshire was a disaster.

The Rose Bowl wicket is, its apologists say, still settling down, and Clarke found it hard to get accustomed. He was dismissed for a set of poor scores: in eight games he failed to score more than 50 runs: "It was very hard because I've never had a run like that," he says.

He was sufficiently unsettled to send for Neil D'Costa, his childhood coach who is now his manager as well. "I got through it by keeping things simple, and I had to understand that some days you need to look ugly to make runs."

That was what the old pros back home wanted to hear. Buchanan says he showed a capacity to work out what is important for his game. Clarke came good at the end of the season, when he made three hundreds, though he still managed only 709 runs at 35.45 for the season. But he had shown character: "I think he learned a lot about himself, but that was part of the deal anyway," says Buchanan.

When Australia arrived in India in Oct-ober, Clarke seemed a marginal figure. Even when Ponting declared himself unfit for the First Test, Clarke was uncertain of a place. He and Hodge went head-to- head in a trial game at Bombay, and, while he did not score many runs, Clarke convinced the powers that be. "His technique in India playing spin was just what we wanted," says Buchanan, who reports that Ponting was a strong supporter. "He sees in Clarke how he was at that age," he says.

Buchanan recalls Clarke's anxiety about his place in the team. "There was no pressure, but his parents and his manager wanted to know whether they should jump on a flight to India." Clarke's parents were waiting in Liverpool, a working-class Sydney suburb where Clarke was born and where cricket was more important than academic work. His father runs a local indoor cricket school.

Australian sporting mythology now requires of the parents of its heroes a dedication to the success of their offspring, which leaves them with no time for anything else. Sport is not a metaphor for life. It is real life. Consequently, the young Clarke was sitting on the kerb waiting for his father to get back from work so that they could resume their endless game of cricket; mother kept wicket; sister did the fielding. They certainly deserved the flight to Bangalore.

Buchanan notes that some players play better the higher they get; others don't. Clarke plays so much better that, only 10 weeks after his Test debut, he is an Australian celebrity. Old men who confess they ought to know better look back and think of Neil Harvey. One has even mentioned Bradman. Is Michael Clarke really that good? Pakistan will know soon, and we will be able to judge for ourselves in just seven more months.