Michael Clarke: 'Pup' leads by example as Australia rebuild for Ashes
Confident captain doesn't think the glory years are a hard act to follow
Pup has become an old dog now. The boy who broke into a team of legends is now running the show. But the sobriquet given to the fresh-faced, blond-haired kid is still borne by the gnarled, close-cropped old pro.
"It hasn't changed," said Michael Clarke, the captain of Australia, "and I wouldn't have it any other way. I have become an old boy and they still call me Pup. There are parts of your job you need to be a leader, but a big part of being in a team is about being one of the boys as well.
"For me, first and foremost you're a player. If you're not making runs as a batsman, you're not going to be in the team whether you're captain or not. I haven't really found it any different, I have always had a really close relationship with the boys and I'm one of the boys. It's about being respected, and I think that as a player and as a leader, and so far so good."
Clarke took over the captaincy last year from Ricky Ponting, whose long tenure was ended when he became the only Australian captain in history to lose the Ashes three times. It is likely to be Clarke's responsibility to try to win them back, either in England next year or in Australia in the winter immediately following.
He has already impressed many good judges with his handling of an inexperienced team. Shane Warne, a friend and mentor who was among the first to bestow the nickname, has an extremely high opinion. Last week Warne said: "I love the way Australia are being captained by Michael Clarke. They're playing an aggressive brand in all forms of the game. He's got a lot of imagination, he's a very good leader and he's very, very good tactically. There is an air of excitement about the Australian cricket team at the moment." Put the pinch of salt in that and it is still some approbation.
Clarke and the team are in England for a five-match one-day series, which might have plenty of merit of its own, but is being viewed by many as merely a reconnaissance mission for the business that really matters 12 months hence, the Ashes. Clarke has taken to the job, in which he is relaxed yet earnest. He takes his duties with utmost seriousness but he knows it is merely transitory, as he explained in a relaxed yet earnest fashion at Lord's last week.
"I certainly don't see it as my team, I see it as the Australian cricket team," he said. "I am the captain of that team and am responsible for the results of that team. You have to be your own man."
It is the convention in Australian cricket for the outgoing captain to retire, partly because his race has invariably been run and partly to leave a clear dressing-room for his successor. Ponting, however, chose to continue playing, and although he has finally been dropped from the one-day side he fully intends to stay in the Test team and to be in England for one last time next summer.
This might easily have cramped Clarke's style, leading the man who had led him for seven years. It seems not to be so. "Our relationship has stayed the same," said Clarke. "A lot of people have asked what it's like with Ricky not being captain and whether it has caused friction in the team. I think it has been completely the opposite, he has been outstanding for the team.
"Once we get out into the middle he knows what I'm thinking without me even thinking it and I'm the same, because we have played so much cricket together. When we get under pressure in the middle, we both know how the other one ticks, Ricky knows what to say to me to get me in a good place and I know what to say to him."
Although they remain ranked as the world's top one-day side, Australia's hegemony, which lasted 15 years, is over. While Ponting took over a great side which he helped briefly to make greater still, Clarke has been given the task of rebuilding it. The process will not happen overnight, and there have been embarrassing reversals against South Africa and New Zealand as well as the crushing of India.
Clarke's form has prospered. He made a triple hundred against India in Sydney and followed it with a double in Adelaide. He remains distinctly unmoved. "The fact that I have made runs at the start of my captaincy shows that the captaincy hasn't affected me," he said. "Now there's going to come a time when I make no runs, so if it hasn't affected me at the start, don't go and say it has affected me then. I feel no difference." He seemed resigned to the fact that we in the voracious media may view the matter differently if and when it happens.
Clarke has become fiercely protective of his privacy. Part of this stems from a caution under the spotlight prompted by the break-up of his engagement to an Australian model, Lara Bingle, which necessitated his leaving a tour of New Zealand. The whole country was rapt.
Last month Clarke was married in secret to his sweetheart, Kyly Boldy. The world knew about it only when the couple announced their happiness on Twitter.
"I like to think I haven't changed," he said. "I have matured because I was a kid, but that's growing up. My family have always featured strongly in my life. Their values and principles still hold strong and they will do for my son and my daughter, hopefully my grandchildren.
"I am very proud of the way my parents brought me up, I am very close to my family. Privacy is one of the most important things to me, especially when it comes to my family and my friends. You spend enough time in the spotlight playing cricket for Australia. So when I've got the chance to be not playing cricket for Australia..."
There is a long way before Australia get back to where they were. Perhaps they never will. But Clarke's shoes may be big ones to fill.
Michael Clarke was speaking on behalf of Asics, the official footwear and apparel sponsor to Cricket Australia. www.asics.co.uk
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