No captain of any cricket team anywhere should have had to do what Michael Clarke has done in the past week. No captain of any cricket team anywhere could have done it as well, or as movingly, or as dutifully.
Clarke’s tribute at the funeral service for Phillip Hughes, his team-mate, his friend, his brother, was beautiful in its simplicity and sincerity. At times he struggled to speak the lovely, heartfelt words but there was not a chance that he would fail to reach the end.
The day after Hughes died last week, Clarke, who had kept constant vigil at the bedside with the Hughes family, had read a statement about the tragedy. Overwhelmed as he was with grief, it was a form of mental torture for him. But as he stumbled over the words, barely able to suppress his tears, he could be heard mumbling harshly to himself. “Do your duty,” he said.
Michael Clarke did his duty all right. He did it on behalf of the Australia team he has led with such fierce inspiration that they have almost recaptured their old glories. He did it on behalf of the country where the game has always been played as a badge of honour and where for country kids like Phillip Hughes it is part of the Australian dream.
In pictures: Phillip Hughes funeral
He did it on behalf of cricketers everywhere who have been numbed by this dreadful accident. He did it on behalf of Phil Hughes, whom he will never forget and in his heart, it has become evident, will never replace.
Clarke has often divided opinion among both Australian society and its cricket. He was an accomplished batsman from the start who scored a century on his first Test appearances away and, then, at home.
But an earnest streak in his nature was matched by a clear feeling that he liked the good things of life, models were his girlfriends. He was a bit too flash for some. By his own admission he did not always get it quite right.
For a little while Clarke was in the Australia team without being part of it. Ricky Ponting, then the captain, pointed it out in his autobiography last year.
“It never worried me if a bloke didn’t want a drink in the dressing room, but I did wonder about blokes who didn’t see the value in sticking around for a chat and a laugh and a post-mortem of the day’s play,” wrote Ponting. “Pup hardly bought into this for a couple of years and the team noticed.”
In 2009 there was a celebrated bust-up in the dressing room between Clarke and Simon Katich. Putatively about when the team song should be sung following a Test win over South Africa it was, Ponting said, “indicative of an ongoing frustration a number of the senior players, including me, were having with our new vice-captain”.
When Clarke was appointed as Australia’s captain to replace Ponting, he was the natural successor. But there were those who worried about how Clarke, sometimes aloof and distant and self-absorbed, would manage. They need not have done.
From the start, Clarke made it his team and in doing so he made it abundantly evident that he cared about each and every one of his players, from whom he expected loyalty and hard work in return. It did not all go smoothly.
There was an unfortunate incident on a tour of India when several Australian players were disciplined for failing to fill in a team questionnaire. That might have brought him down, as might stories that emerged of deep-seated animosity between Clarke and some players.
His marriage to Kyly Boldy, an old school friend, had an immediate effect on him. She was content with, nay insistent on, being away from the celebrity spotlight. So was he.
It was obvious that the captaincy of Australia meant a great deal. He understood instinctively that it was one of the most important posts an Australian could be asked to hold, with almost mythical status. It would be a mistake to presume that he was perfect. He was not.
Clarke played cricket in what is perceived to be the Australian way. In the intensity of the first Test of the Ashes last winter he and Jimmy Anderson, the England bowler, were involved in an altercation. Anderson, who knows how to hurl unpleasantries, had just come in to bat and was seen giving the fielder George Bailey the benefit of his opinions. Clarke responded infamously: “Face up. And get ready for a broken f****** arm.” It probably increased his popularity ten-fold among his compatriots.
As a cricketer dealing with the demands of the press Clarke has been a dream since he became captain. He never ducked a question, he was candid about the team’s performances. He was passionate about the game, about being captain of Australia and you always, always had the impression that if you were a friend, you were a friend for ever.
Clarke and Hughes were possibly not natural bedfellows. Clarke was a Sydneysider, Hughes a farmer’s boy. But they shared a coach, which is often an unbreakable bond, and they were easy and trustful in each other’s company.
Last week, the world changed for Clarke, for all cricketers, when his young friend, five days short of his 26th birthday, was hit in the neck by a bouncer from Sean Abbott which dissected an artery. He fell to the ground almost immediately and after emergency surgery never regained consciousness. He was 63 not out, unconquered, as the chief executive of Cricket Australia, James Sutherland, put it. Sutherland has been as magnificent as Clarke this week.
The effect was profound and probably enduring. Hughes was an exceptional cricketer, a splendid man and that he perished playing a game has stunned the world of sport and beyond it. And so today, the captain of Australia rose to his feet in Macksville, Hughes’ hometown. He touched his friend’s coffin as he passed to the front of the congregation.
He told, chokingly, how he knew it was crazy but that he expected any minute to take a call from his friend or see his face pop round the corner. “Is this what we call the spirit?” he asked. “If so, then his spirit is still with me. And I hope it never leaves.”
And then Michael conjured up the vision of his friend at the Sydney Cricket Ground, where the tragedy occurred. He had walked out there last Thursday night. “I stood there at the wicket, I knelt down and touched the grass, I swear he was with me. Picking me up to my feet to check if I was OK. Telling me we just needed to dig in and get through to tea. Telling me off for that loose shot I played. Chatting about what movie we might watch that night. And then passing on a useless fact about cows.”
The line about the cows elicited a chuckle from the massed congregation. How they needed it. The other passion in Hughes’ life was cows.
The captain of Australia, and at this moment the captain of cricket itself, spoke of how Hughes’ spirit had brought us all closer together, and how that same spirit, “which is now part of our game for ever, will act as a custodian of the sport we all love”.
It was time to go. But Hughes’ captain and friend was not letting him slip away so easily. “We must listen to it,” he said. “We must cherish it. We must learn from it. We must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on. So rest in peace, my little brother. I’ll see you out in the middle.” His duty was fulfilled and now he can begin to grieve. Soon he will play Test matches again. How you hope he scores a century. And 63 more for his eternal silent partner.Reuse content