Alastair Cook is wearing the whitest of whites. Pristine doesn’t even cover it, his whites almost radiate. He purposefully strides across the Cardiff outfield. He looks like a legend, almost; god-like. His team has failed to win three of their last four Test series. His batting has flirted with pathetic. He was embarrassed by an ODI captaincy sacking.
You don’t get any of that from his walk. He looks confident, focused, on a mission.
Beside him is Trevor Bayliss. He looks scruffy, is walking with one hand in his pocket, seems to have the knees of an aged pro. His tracksuit seems too big, and somehow already well worn. He can barely catch up with Cook, as he tries to talk to him about something, he looks like a policy wonk trying to talk to a statesman.
If Cook listens, it doesn’t show.
He stares and strides. With purpose. He has a job to do.
There are players who think about their games to a terrifying near-psycho level. There are others who play. Alastair Cook trains.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Cook couldn’t play spin as well as he liked, so he booked endless sessions with the Merlyn bowling machine facing spin. He kept facing it until he conquered it.
Cook in the slips at first was a waste of a human in the slips. He was like a gap dressed in whites. But he worked on it. And worked. Even after he was taken out of slips, almost every training session would have him taking more and more catches in slips practice. He refused to believe he couldn’t conquer it, and eventually he did.
When Cook’s batting reached a low coming into 2015, Cook went and found Gary Palmer. A batting coach known as the man who fixes technical flaws. Cook’s technique was a mess, and his head was much the same. But he threw himself into training sessions with Palmer until he improved.
There was a time when Cook’s captaincy was essentially batting, and walking out on the field. It was dour, harder to watch than even his scratchiest innings. But as his team changed, he stopped being Andrew Strauss-lite, started to grow into the job. He had “funky” third slips in helmets, he attacked more and he changed when he had too.
Alastair Cook is a man who works hard on his craft.
Bedford School was founded in 1552, by Royal Charter. Its main school building is a massive, red, gothic revival, listed building that towers above the cricket ground. A cricket ground so professional that it hosts List A games, minor county games and 2nd XI county fixtures. It has proper change rooms and viewing balconies.
People of note come from Bedford school. Guglielmo Marconi went on to win a Nobel prize for his work in Physics. Harold Abrahams won an Olympic sprinting gold medal. And Paddy Ashdown who was the first leaders of the Liberal Democrats.
They had good cricketers before Cook, they even had Derek Randall as their sports master. But Cook rewrote all their records. Even before he played for the 1st XI, he had made a score of 100 against them, as a 14-year-old filling in for an MCC XI.
It was in Bedford, the ancient special institution with the ghosts of great men around him, that they told Cook he would captain England one day.
From that moment onwards, Alastair Cook was future England captain Alastair Cook. That was his role in life.
There was a time when if you stumbled across the Barnes seconds or thirds in the Middlesex league, you’d have seen a tall elegant right-hander. Someone who had so much time to play the ball, who timed it like you do in dreams, who could play all the shots.
If you saw this guy on the way to the change rooms, you’d see his cricket bag. It was official English kit. This tall elegant player was Adrian Cook, brother of. And if they were ever in side by side nets, there is no doubt you’d be just as impressed, if not even more so, by Adrian than Alastair.
Alastair Cook played Under-15 cricket for England. In the same side were James Hildreth and Samit Patel. In county cricket, Hildreth is like David Gower, he bats on rails he’s so smooth. Then there is Patel, a stunning mix of bravado and shots, he forces you to admire him. There is no doubt that these are the two boys you would remember from the Under-15 team. The mature kid with the decent pull and surprising discipline wouldn’t stand out as much.
By Under-19s, Patel was captain under the coaching of Paul Farbrace. But when Andy Pick came in, Cook was made captain to lighten the load on the star Patel. In the Under-19 World Cup, Cook made two hundreds but still 120 runs less than Shikhar Dhawan, at a far slower rate. Even in Cook’s team, as he made runs, there was the bravado of Patel, the big hitting of Luke Wright and the slashing beauty of Steve Davies.
There was also Ravi Bopara, with England Under-19s and at Essex as well. There are few batsmen who make batting look as easy as Bopara. There are few batsmen you’d rather watch.
All these players, natural talents, were around Cook. His brother, Hildreth, Patel, Dhawan, Davies and Bopara. It’s been over ten years since that Under-19 World Cup, 15 since those Under-15 games and two decades since the Cook boys played in their garden. All that natural talent has only earned three of the others Test places, and a tally of 1842 runs. Alastair Cook has over 9000.
He has worked for every one of them.
He will leave the ball. Full balls bunted to point. The forward defence where it almost looks like he is playing from behind his pad. He’ll wait, potentially all day, to cut. Back-foot defensive drops on the leg side. He’ll force, or squeeze, through point. He’ll score every run off his pads if he has to. He’ll leave a whole lot more. The ball will drop into the gap at cover, that he barely ever pierces, for a single. Mid-on and mid-off will get cold hands. He’ll guide. And nudge. There will be a sweep. And, until he pulls, there won’t be a single shot that many in the crowd won’t think they can play.
On his best day, this is the Alastair Cook checklist.
India 2006. England called three players into their squad. James Anderson, Alastair Cook and Owais Shah. Of the three, Cook is, as ever, the least naturally talented, the one you want to watch the least.
England’s top order was made of three other men. Marcus Trescothick was an English fan favourite. Coming out of an era when English batsmen were usually victims, he stood and bashed. And point boundaries seemed to whimper at the thought of him. He was also an Ashes 2005 hero.
His opening partner was Andrew Strauss, a potential captain, the wing commander, a stylish batsman and another 2005 hero. Behind them was Michael Vaughan, prettier than either, runs flowed when in good form, and the most revered England captain in decades. That is a pretty strong top three.
But this England three had some issues. Strauss had form issues, Vaughan had knee issues and Trescothick had health issues. When Trescothick pulled out of the tour of India, it was Cook who came straight into the team for him. And made fifty and a hundred in his first Test.
When Vaughan was injured, Cook replaced him at three for his next few Tests. Had they all been fit, and in form, Cook might have never have taken his place in the side. But Cook did get opportunities, and he took them every time. There were bigger names with bigger talents, but there had always been.
Perhaps had Trescotchick got himself right, Cook would have struggled to unsettle them. But, with Cook, you always feel he would have found a way. Perhaps he would have turn himself into a solid No. 4, or a wicketkeeper, or a left-arm swing bowler. Whatever it took.
Instead he just made a lot of runs, and it was those early runs where he laid his platform for his future job.
Cook was the youngest Englishman to 1500 runs. To 2000 runs, 3000, 4000, 5000. Second batsman to score 1000 runs in his maiden calendar year. Scored four centuries before he was 22, as did Bradman. He and Strauss went beyond Hobbs and Sutcliffe’s opening runs record for England. Most time spent batting in a five-Test series. Youngest human being to 7000 Test runs. Most Test centuries for England. Youngest human being to 8000 Test runs. Most Test runs for England. Youngest player worldwide to 9000 Test runs.
They say Cook can get obsessed with numbers, but numbers like that breed obsession. His performance reviews may not always be glowing, but he punches in every day, works hard, and does his absolute best. That adds up after a while.
Ian Bell came into the England team before Cook. The skill is there dripping off him at every shot, even during the play and misses. But Bell was never a leader, not for England. Even when he became vice-captain it was only briefly, and he was never seen as a potential captain of England.
In 2009, Alastair Cook became vice-captain, his average at the time had dipped to a career low of 40. Bell would be out of the England team on the same tour. There was simply no one else around.
There was just the future England captain Alastair Cook.
England are midway through their warm-up football game. Cook is playing on the team with the yellow vests, as usual he has his cap on backwards. He doesn’t quite seem to get the game, when he is in possession, it’s clumsy and he doesn’t have touch or vision. He looks like a footballing Gomer Pyle. He’s also not a natural mover, he moves a bit like he is animatronic.
Adam Lyth is a natural. He sees the game ahead of time, gets to the ball beautifully, soft touch, he’s quick and decisive, controls the ball beautifully when it’s at his feet, is almost always in the right position for the next pass.
At one stage in the game, Cook finds himself defending Lyth. There should be no contest, in football terms, Cook is little more than a cone for Lyth to go around. But Cook just hangs in there, and when Lyth tries an aggressive feint around him, Cook just gets in the way, somehow, despite his general awkwardness, and he deflects the ball just enough to stop an easy goal.
There was a protester outside The Oval on day one of the fifth Ashes Test. She was there to protest Alastair Cook’s deer hunting. Outside of cricket, it is Cook’s biggest controversy. Much like his batting, he gives away little about his life.
While his team-mates tweet out their private life, and which South African Portuguese-inspired chicken restaurant they are at, Cook isn’t even on Twitter.
Cricket-wise, the biggest controversy Cook has been part of was Kevin Pietersen’s axing. And he had been the person in part responsible for bringing Pietersen back. But the ECB’s bumbled attempt to make KP into the devil and Cook as the saviour never quite went down perfectly. Perhaps, had Cook been making runs, he could have done what he always did, and batted his way out of it.
Instead an embarrassing series loss, partly brought on by a defensive declaration, to Sri Lanka, and then a loss at Lord’s to India, and it was almost enough for Cook. He said later that it was his wife who talked him out of it.
Perhaps that is what Giles Clarke, then the ECB chairman, had meant when he said that Cook and his family are very much the sort of people he England captain and his family should be. The problem is that it sounded like coded public school talk.
Despite his Bedford schooling (on a scholarship for his singing), Cook is more lower-middle class, than Clarke, who is posh and powerful. But Cook is the very representation of middle class stiff upper lip. He grew up with a yard to play in, went to boarding school and had vacations in the snow. That upbringing, plus tons of runs, and the fact he was a top-order batsman, seemed to be prefect for captaincy, like he was born for it. Born into it.
But, again this year, he has said he almost gave it up.
The interesting thing is that twice he has almost given it up, never has he given it up. And the reason might be silly. From 14 to 27 he was the future England captain. From 27 to 30, the England captain. If he were to give it up now, he will be the former England captain for life.
He doesn’t appear likely to run the ICC. Or fund a series of digital start-ups. He’s not a natural in front of a microphone. And, with a limited education, most other professions would be tough to move into. So why would he give up this job, the job he has groomed himself for, overachieved to get, and had big triumphs in, when he is only 30?
Most of his life he will be former England captain Alastair Cook. Why rush into that role?
There is a conversation in the movie Gladiator between Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, where Commodus remembers a list of chief virtues his father said he should have, and mentions that he has none of them. Cricket fans have a list of chief virtues in their star batsmen. They want cavalier attitude, style, the ability to play all the shots, and charisma.
Cook has none. But he has other virtues.
Talk to a player who has got the very most out of themselves and suggest they have done well despite a lack of natural talent, and you’ll get the look. That look of utter disgust, and pure tiredness. Concentrate for an hour, a day, a Test or a whole series without a single mistake. Is it not talent to constantly reshape your game to overcome the latest flaw. Can we not sit and marvel at a man who refuses to play shots that must have come naturally to him as a boy just to survive Test cricket?
In baseball, scouts were often sucked in looking for that perfect swing. Alastair Cook does not have the perfect swing of the bat; he has an imperfect nudge of the ball that, through his other undervalued superpowers, he can do for days on end.
Cook has chief virtues, they are not aesthetically pleasing or excitingly cavalier, but few players in the history of the game have his natural talent, or the numbers he has.
Cook’s numbers and wins have made more people love him, but that unconditional head-over-heels love that someone like David Gower has – it’s hard to see Cook ever getting that.
Cook had just left the player’s viewing area to walk into the change room when he became Test cricket’s leading active run-scorer (assuming Shivnarine Chanderpaul has batted his last). Kumar Sangakkara had just been dismissed for the second time at P Sara. All Cook was doing was walking, a 30-year-old player, a young veteran, the highest scoring man left in cricket.
Michael Clarke is driven by legacy. Graeme Smith by being in charge. Brendon McCullum by passion.
But what drives Alastair Cook as a captain? There seems to be nothing obvious. Nothing that you can see just by looking at him play. If there is something, beyond the normal things of enjoying a win, we might never truly find it.
But the truth might be in the job. For Cook, this job is a big deal. More so than it is for other captains. For Cook, the job is more important than the leadership, than the legend status, than his hunger for it.
In cricket he is England’s highest man. There is a status in that. He hasn’t just fulfilled a childhood prophecy, he has achieved everything a man like him can. It’s his American presidency, his number one hit, his raison d’etre.
Had he not become captain, he might never have been complete.
When England won in India under Cook, it was Cook who took the first ball of the England innings. A statement. In Ahmedabad, he made 176 when following on. It was one of only two scores above 50 they managed in a losing Test match. In Mumbai he scored a first-innings hundred and then was not out in England’s successful chase. In Kolkata he was run out for 190; at that time he’d scored more than half England’s total. They would go on to win that as well. Cook would average 80.28 in the series but, more importantly, England would beat India, in India.
This series Adam Lyth has taken the first ball of every innings for England. Cook has played two decent innings, both times in losing causes. His captaincy has been different than India too. He no longer sits back and allows the cricket to happen. He has tried things, pushed hard when required, and not automatically defaulted to boundary riders. But outside of Cardiff, England have won this series without the need of Cook attacking, they have done it because Australia can’t bat before lunch in English conditions.
These are Cook’s greatest wins as captain. One was on his back, the other under his watch.
When the last wicket fell, Cook was sitting with the analysts in his training kit, he grimaced, and shrugged his shoulders, like he’d been beaten by a decent ball. He then started to walk towards the door, when Ottis Gibson stopped to shake his hand. Soon the whole team was shaking his hand. Everyone in that change room wanted to stop and congratulate the captain, and he acknowledged all of them in an understated way, even when Stuart Broad hugged him.
Then Cook led his team down the stairs. Noticing that Clarke was getting a guard of honour from his team, Cook stood back and waited, he was in no rush. Then the players all shook hands and Cook and the team changed back into their whites. Cook’s pristine whites.
Cook led the team out one last time for the ceremony. He smiled, but was still focused, and had a few more interviews to nudge around the corner, all of which he did effectively.
Then he found himself at the front of the photo celebrations, the other players poured champagne on him, but he just held the urn and smiled for the cameras.
It was the first time his whites weren’t pristine.
Even his walk changed. It wasn’t focused, or goal oriented. He wasn’t really going anywhere. Just wandering. Dawdling. Smiling. Laughing. He took a flag of St George and draped it around his champagne-drenched, Ashes-winning shoulders.
His last day at the office this summer. Job done.
Airports during the world cup were packed with cricketers. You literally couldn’t move for bumping into Lendl Simmons facetiming his family, a fan pushing past Rod Marsh to get Geoff Boycott’s autograph or Preston Mommsen buying a new neck pillow.
For me, it was Kumar Sangakkara that stood out the most.
Australia had beaten Sri Lanka at the SCG, I was off to Hobart, as was the Sri Lankan team. But the Sri Lankan team had travelled in a large group. Kumar was a part from them. He was trying to check his family in for another flight. He had his wife and two small children. It was clear that they were in the wrong part of the airport for his family’s flight, so Kumar had to drag all their luggage out of the terminal and find the right place.
He also had two of those massive suitcases that only families who can’t pack efficiently have, and he was dragging both of them behind him, while his kids jumped up on them. He never even stopped, he just kept dragging these bags with kids on them.
The night before he had made 104. It was his third, of what would end up as four, hundreds on the trot. He was one of the most famous cricketers alive, in some of the greatest form of his life, during a world cup where everyone was talking about him, was performing such a mundane, annoying task.
No one went up to him, no one other than me, even noticed it was him. He was just a dad, who was tired, but still willing to do what he needed to do for his family.
There must have been times he felt much the same when batting for, or captaining Sri Lanka. He must have looked over at the fame and adulation of Indian players, the wealth of the Australian or English players, and shook his head.
Kumar was a legend the night before as he slammed the feared Australian attack around, he was a legend as he pulled his bags (and kids) in that airport the next day and a legend when he smashed Scotland a couple of days later.
When he finally got his family away, and checked in himself, three Sri Lankan fan security guards asked for a photo. Kumar was fed up, probably sore, and dashing for his plane. There were four photo combinations taken, at one stage, I actually thought they’d get him to take a photo just of them. He smiled well for all of them. Then dashed off.
Had that been an Indian player with a Test batting average of 57 the airport would have come to a standstill for him. But that day, Kumar took as many photos with fans in the airport as Xavier Doherty did.
An all time legend of cricket, a hero of his nation, but mostly, the invisible force of Test Cricket.
After the Scotland hundred, I spoke to one of the bowlers, I wanted him to articulate what it is like to bowl to Kumar when he is in that form. Instead he paused and stared into the distance. It was like he was staring at the face of God. Then he took a long breath.
Bowlers can now breath easier. But cricket has a lost a God.
On Thursday the 20th August, the first day of the final Ashes Test, I’ll be outside the Oval at 10am, with other cricket fans. We’ll be standing for a three minute silence to protest the Big 3’s silencing of the rest of the cricket world. We’ll be standing to #changecricket. Here is why I’ll be standing.
When I was 27 I was parking cars for a living.
Three years on I’d written for Wisden, published two books, and played cricket on the Nursery Ground at Lord’s.
A few years on from that I’ve travelled around the world with cricket. I’ve commentated the close of a Test match in South Africa. Seen India v Pakistan on three continents. Saw perhaps the most agile streaker ever in New Zealand. Got smashed in the nets of Arun Lal’s cricket academy (after bowling one dream leggie). Chatted to a Jamaican Taxi driver on Garner vs Holding. Seen Chris Gayle range hitting a cricket ball onto a Sri Lankan street. And commentated a cricket game at the G.
Now the only two websites I have ever used as homepages in my life, cricinfo and imdb, both have my name on them.
Cricket gave me all that. But, that’s just a job. Cricket had always given me things.
It kept me out of trouble as a teenager. The one time I was caught shoplifting was on the eve of a game. And just the fear that I may not play the next day was enough for me fly straight a for a while. When I was at my lowest points, when I was told that someone who did not finish highschool would never amount to anything, and I faced a life of random jobs and constant disappointments, it was cricket that helped me not drive into the parked semi trailer on my night shifts back home.
Playing cricket, watching cricket, talking absolute shit about cricket.
This blog started in a pizza place called Pepperonis near Flinders St station in Melbourne. It was the best place for me and my mates to meet before heading to the G for the footy, and often where we would head straight after the cricket as well. Me and my mate Sime liked the pizza, but perhaps the best part was the fact that no matter what Joel (Big Daddy) ordered, they got wrong, or just plain forgot. Cricket just gave us something never ending to talk about, argue about. In a Chicago hostel on our way to the 2003 World Cup we argued about Adam Gilchrist and what they next five years of his career would produce, until someone slammed the wall telling us it was 3am.
Before that it was cricket in the backyard, the front yard, the street, the park, a school, the nets, on a concrete, matting, synthetic and then finally actual turf.
In the backyard my dad always triggered everyone, as only old bowlers can. My uncle Gary was always on the look out for a creative way to use his knowledge of the laws of cricket to make an extra single. My uncle Ross batted like a 12 year old boy his whole life, which always amused us. My uncle Terry had this slow and jerky style of bowling that never looked like it would go straight, but the only loose ball he bowled would be so far down legside you couldn’t score off it. My cousins were all bowlers, a couple of legspinners and a few fast medium bowlers. Our games usually had quick turnovers as no one was a really great bat. My cousin Megan would get a second chance, and would often use that to hit the ball over the fence. My mum played everything across the line, she had a killer cross court forehand in tennis, and that was her only shot in cricket as well.
We still play today, my mum still has surprising good reflexes at short cover.
I played at school, not often in PE, or for the school, but at morning break and lunch. Then after school. Behind the kindergarten in Greenbrook that I once attended there were concrete pitches, so you had to pocket every spare cricket ball you could. I remember Kevin’s inswingers, Jase’s offcutters, Justin’s bouncers and a young kid called Jacob (before he went on to play for Richmond) who could come over when he heard the ball slam into his families fence.
It was always there for me. On the radio, on the TV, in a conversation, out on the ground, wherever I needed it. My last proper conversation with my grandpa was about cricket. When my wife had a miscarriage, I threw myself into cricket. It didn’t matter how bad my life was, there was always cricket. There was always Dean Jones, Martin Crowe, Mushtaq Ahmed, Wasim Akram, Craig Howard, Ian Harvey, Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid, Stephen Fleming, Virender Sehwag, Bryce McGain,,my father, Westy, the Gibbs brothers, Dom, Adrian, Neil, Eddo and Housey.
There was always cricket.
When my dad and I didn’t get each other, we got cricket. We could talk cricket. We could watch cricket. We always had that.
My wife and her father had a complicated relationship as well. But they had cricket. They had Sachin. And my wife held on to that after her father passed away.
Our kids only exist because of cricket, without it, a hemisphere and a world apart, we would never have met. I still remember when my oldest son hit his first ball, that pure look of joy on his face as the ball hit the bat. Surprise and pure happiness. On my best days with cricket, I still get that.
And that’s why I will be standing for cricket, because cricket has always stood for me. And, while your history might be different, I bet it has always stood for you.
It’s been used by sexists, racists, colonists, by Lord’s, by rulers, by dictators. They have used and abused it. Used it to segregate, used it to teach the natives how to be like them, used it to break down men and ignore women. But cricket isn’t the men that run it. Cricket isn’t racist. Cricket is wonderful. Beautiful. Perfect even when it isn’t. It’s us who are flawed. It’s us who have allowed it to be used this way.
That’s why I am standing for cricket. Maybe we should have always been standing for cricket. Maybe we shouldn’t have waited for three men to use money and ego to bully the 102 official cricket nations and steal the game for their own self serving reasons . Maybe as cricket fans we should have always stood for cricket. But let us stand now.
If you can’t get to the Oval, stand for three minutes wherever you are. This is our sport. We can give it three minutes after a lifetime of what it has given us.
A clean skin and a baggy green. That is what Michael Clarke used on his home ground of the SCG as he made a triple-century.
It was a perfect cricket image. The young gun who had never been embraced, had struggled to ever make a positive impact, who had been given a failing team, was smashing India around, in the nation’s cap, with a sponsorless bat. Running up those historical SCG stairs, chatting mid-innings to the country through Channel Nine, and trying to win over a nation of doubters.
For the first time all those whispers, from current players, former players, the media and the fans, were drowned out by nothing but applause.
That is what Michael Clarke has always wanted, to be not just a player, not just a captain, but a great – a legend, loved and idolised forever. One of the golden baggy-green wearers. Trumper. Bradman. Border. Clarke.
Clarke wanted to be the hero riding the white horse. He wanted to be loved, adored, and iconic.
Eight years earlier he did what Australian batsmen for generations before him had never really been able to do, he treated India like his own personal playground. He scored 151, on debut, on one of the surfaces that Australia had spent decades treating like kryptonite. Clarke made those men look silly as he danced down to the great Anil Kumble and Australian torturer Harbhajan Singh. When facing Zaheer Khan, as he approached his hundred, Clarke took off his helmet and replaced it with a baggy green. It was another great image.
Former Australian legends had already whispered that he was a once-in-a-generation cricketer. Now we could see it for ourselves. He was called a breath of fresh air, his hairstyling became an odd media obsession. And he was the young star of one of the greatest teams of all time.
Clarke stated that he wanted to be one of those players who was never dropped. Don Bradman had been dropped. Ricky Ponting had been dropped. But here was a young kid stating that he wanted to stay in the team forever. He might as well have said, “I don’t want to be a player, I want to be a legend.”
The problem was that after the Bangalore innings, Clarke was like any young player. He had flaws, he had bad days, and teams played on his patience. He also hit the ball in the air a lot. From his third to his eighth Test series, he didn’t make a hundred. The pressure mounted. People stopped calling him a breath of fresh air, and started using “flashy”. It seemed like he was getting special treatment that he didn’t warrant. He was seen as a passenger. And while the whispers of him being dropped, and the whispers of those who turned on him got louder, Clarke continued to fight for his place, at press conferences far more than in the middle.
Then there was his real battle. Everything had come easy to Clarke. Since the age of 12 everyone had told him he would play for Australia. He was a cricketing Richie Rich. In his first three seasons he was a decent cricketer for New South Wales and hinted at something special, but there were no magical 1000-run seasons. There were no double- or triple-tons. He never averaged over 50. But with Clarke, it was, and had always been, obvious he was an Australian player. So he was promoted.
The biggest problem with this was that when he lost form for Australia, he had nothing to compare it to. He had been a teenage prodigy, a stalwart by 20 for the toughest state in the country: the pearl from the academy and then the young idol in this champion team. He didn’t know how to be the struggling batsman. And he couldn’t dig his way out of it.
His perfect career was dented when he was dropped.
Brad Hodge, Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson all played Tests in this time. Clarke was even brought back for Bangladesh, and then redropped. But when Watson’s body ruled him out of the 2006-07 Ashes, Clarke came back in. With Australia cruising past a non-existent England, Clarke strode out and did what he does at his absolute best – score pretty runs. So pretty, and plentiful, that he was never dropped again.
Clarke in form is liquid batting. He has these long, luscious drives. He has time and magic feet. There is nowhere he can’t score, no type of bowler that can stop him. Like a hybrid of Mark Waugh’s timing and Michael Slater’s feet. He was even compared to Neil Harvey, the original golden-footed youngster. It was all so pretty, but the whispers were still there.
Runs aren’t enough when you want to be a legend. You have to make special runs. Steve Waugh crisis runs. Ricky Ponting stamp-of-authority runs. Allan Border one-man-army runs. Clarke merely scored runs. Not big runs. Not attention-grabbing runs. Not clutch runs. For any other player, it would have been enough. But he didn’t want to be just another player, and the fans now wanted more from him. They demanded he become the legend they, and he, wanted. Instead he was ethereal, floating around world cricket, never making any real impact at all.
As Australia moved on from a champion team to a mediocre one, Clarke was much the same. His average was in the mid-40s. He developed a weird habit of being dismissed just before a break. The whole team was struggling, the system itself was buckling, but Clarke took the full brunt of the hate. The desperation. The anger.
The whispers about his image as a Bondi-brunching bikini-babe-dating wannabe model were now constant screams. He posed in underwear, he liked expensive cars and wore the latest fashions, while Australia plodded around international cricket. People acted as if he did all that and didn’t work on his game. As if the two couldn’t go together. He was a young, rich, good-looking Australian who was moving his way up from working class to a Sydney mover and shaker. He was a slick publicity machine. And people despised him for it. There has always been a battle in Australia between working class, and those from the working class who aspire for more.
The great Australian dream is to own your own home. Not to be rich. Not to be famous. Do your job as well as you can, don’t showboat, keep your head down, and have a cold beer at the end of the day. Michael Clarke, by no fault of his own, wanted more. While Shane Warne ate Hawaiian pizzas and smoked durries, Clarke sipped cocktails and ate at hot spots.
Australia, the sort of Australia that boos indigenous football legend Adam Goodes, couldn’t handle that.
Clarke became vice-captain, and captain in waiting, but no one in the country seemed to like him. The more he did to try and get the public’s love, the more they hated him. His high-profile girlfriend, glamour model Lara Bingle, was an Australian Kim Kardashian. And their public displays of affection, including nauseating conversations on Twitter, grated. They clearly wanted to be an “it couple”. They were clearly in love, and Clarke was willing to miss a Test when Bingle’s father passed away. But even that was used against him. A real man, apparently, is one who leaves his partner alone as she mourns her father’s loss.
Much in the same way that a prime minister’s spouse is important, so was Bingle. She wasn’t seen as the right kind of future Mrs Australian Cricket Captain. Few seemed to notice that the best run of Clarke’s career was when he was with Bingle.
But their paparazzi-friendly romance was not destined to last forever. Bingle’s past caught up with her when nude pictures of her found their way into the public, and Clarke decided to move on. The only problem was that Australia was in the middle of a tour of New Zealand. Clarke left the tour to break up with her. He then went back to New Zealand and made a quality hundred. Had any other player scored a hundred after a break-up mid-tour, they would have got praise. But had any other player broken up mid-tour, no one would have known. His life was a series of public whispers in gossip pages. He got grief for leaving the tour, he got grief for breaking up with Bingle, and he got faint praise for one of the most important hundreds of his career.
He wasn’t good enough, he wasn’t hard enough, he wasn’t humble enough, he wasn’t working class enough, he wasn’t what they wanted. And deep down, he wasn’t what he wanted, as he wanted to be loved. He was averaging 50 in Test cricket. That did not get him love. The love he craved, the love he thought he deserved.
Then there was the altercation with Simon Katich. The facts didn’t matter. Or what had brought it all about. Katich had choked Clarke in the dressing room because Clarke wanted the Australian cricket war song sung earlier. Forget whispers, this was the only fact anyone wanted to say: Katich was a man, Clarke was soft. One worried about manly traditions, one worried about dinner reservations and VIP rooms.
Those outside the Australian team were spreading rumours of how un-liked he was. Even a Cricket Australia blog by Brett Geeves mocked him. The other players whispered about how he had no real friends, hung out with his bat sponsor, and was Shane Warne’s pet.
By the Ashes in 2010-11 his batting was in a funk, his average dipping back to the mid-40s. His back was now slowing him down, making him an occasional target. As vice-captain, and captain in waiting, of an Australian team losing their first home Ashes in 24 years, he was barely seen. At the crease, or at press conferences. His all-time low came when in Adelaide in the second innings he showed some form, before letting Kevin Pietersen get him out moments before the close of play. Then not walking when it was obvious he hit it. Then standing there embarrassed as the DRS made a mockery of not walking. Then apologising via Twitter for not walking.
At the same time Doug Bollinger was one of the most popular cricketers in Australia. As a player, Bollinger never made it. As a man, he did. He was big, loud and funny -often not intentionally. Australia embraced his unpolished nature, his natural ockerness. They loved him when he accidentally kissed his beer sponsor, not the Australian crest, and when he sang badly in a cricket ad. Clarke, in his whole career, had never been as loved as Doug the Rug. A Sydney newspaper ran a poll on who they wanted as the next Australian captain during this time. Clarke got less than 15% of the vote. Cameron White got over 40% despite not being in the side. Had Bollinger been in the poll, Clarke would have lost to him. Had it been an election, Clarke would not have been the people’s choice.
Clarke was booed in Melbourne in Ricky Ponting’s last game as captain.
When Ponting did step down, it should have been a formality that Clarke took the job. There was no one else even in the line, Clarke was vice-captain, just tick the box. But Cricket Australia board member and former team-mate Matthew Hayden questioned Clarke’s character. He spoke up for the masses. He used Clarke leaving a tour to break up with his girlfriend. He used the Katich incident. He used the fact that Clarke didn’t get along with people. He might as well have talked about his modelling and where he brunched.
But Cricket Australia board member and Clarke ally Mark Taylor stood up for him. And Cricket Australia chose their only actual choice.
Clarke, in his first Test as captain, at home, was booed.
The Australian captain, by accident, seems to mirror Australian society in his time. When Border led Australia, he led a country on the move, making a mark by working as hard as they could. Steve Waugh’s aggressive patriotism and arrogance was the Australia of the late ’90s. And Ponting’s skill, frustration and anger at the little things were all there as he and Australia moved from a suburban country to a metropolitan one.
Clarke was also representative of Australia. He was the lucky batsman leading the lucky country. He hadn’t worked as hard as the men before him. He hadn’t got where he was through hard work but with natural resources. He wasn’t content with just a home of his own. He wanted a property portfolio. He was rich, and no longer working class. He may not have been the sort of Australian captain Australia wanted, lusted after, thought they deserved. But he was very much the modern face of Australia. Maybe that mirror was the problem.
Clarke made a hundred in Sri Lanka, as he led his team to a win in their first series. In South Africa, in Cape Town, on a pitch that his batsmen could not understand, he came to the wicket at 40 for 3. Many Australian fans would have written him off. Instead he made 151 out of 284. His team bowled South Africa out for 96. All they needed was a decent second innings and the Test was theirs. Forty-seven all out followed. And Clarke lost his chance to win his second series as well. Clarke had made almost 50% of Australia’s runs in the match.
Australia won the next Test, and they had drawn away from home against the world’s No. 1 team. A home draw against New Zealand was odd. But then India turned up.
Clarke, the man who had never been loved, embraced or respected, was given the warmest embrace at the SCG as he passed each milestone. It could have been Trumper or Bradman. It was respect. It was an embrace. It was love.
For the next year, Clarke kept feeling the love. He added a double-century to his triple-century against India. He scored two more doubles the following summer, against South Africa. He was now dating his high-school sweetheart. He was now writing for the paper that had slagged him off.
And the Sydney Morning Herald wrote this: “Dear Pup, on behalf of the Australian sports media and cricket fans across this sunburnt nation, it’s time to officially say sorry. These aren’t token words. A journalist finds it almost as hard to utter the ‘s’ word as John Howard did.” And then ended with: “It’s not your fault you like to wear the latest cool duds and like a good time away from the field. Your results with the cricket bat, and the decisions you make as our leader, are the only two credentials you need worry about. On both counts, you’re passing with flying colours, and that’s all that matters. You’ve started your new life with your lovely new wife, now it’s time we started our relationship with you afresh.”
To get a public apology all Michael Clarke had to do was score 329 not out, 210, 259 not out and 230 in one year.
Even then, Clarke would never win everyone over. But this was monumental. Clarke was in charge. Clarke had respect. He had climbed the mountain. He was special. Now, to become a legend.
With Clarke was a whole new team. Mickey Arthur the cheery coach. John Inverarity the scholarly selector. Pat Howard the executive general manager to team performance. And Michael Clarke, as selector.
Those good times lasted only as long as Australia were in Australia. Overseas, Clarke has never had long lasting good times. His career average away from home is under 40. It is more than 20 less than his average at home.
Clarke’s horror started in India as Australia collapsed in every single way imaginable to a 4-0 loss. Clarke didn’t even finish the last Test. Australia’s new feel-good times came crashing down as Clarke and Arthur cracked down on ill-discipline with Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson about homework. He was trying to flex his muscle as a leader, and stamp his authority on a team he very much saw as his. And instead he, although mostly Arthur, were mocked for making Australian cricket perform school tasks.
By the time of the 2013 Champions Trophy, things got worse. When David Warner swung a punch at Joe Root in Birmingham, Australian cricket fell apart. Clarke stayed in London getting treatment on his back, and only left London for a charity game involving Warne. His team needed him, his coach was on the way out, and he didn’t take the 90-minute train to sort any of it out.
Darren Lehmann was brought in to settle everyone down. Brad Haddin was back for a bit of leadership as well. It wasn’t a great sign for Clarke’s captaincy. Arthur was off saying that Clarke had referred to Watson as a cancer. Australia were losing 3-0. They were 0-7 in their last two tours.
Then England toured Australia. And Mitchell Johnson was back. Haddin had the series of his life. Ryan Harris’ knees squeezed out gold. And Clarke added a 5-0 to his resume. That 5-0 is as iconic as the unbeaten 329.
South Africa were up next, and it was in Cape Town that Clarke did his best work. Australia were 1-1 in their three-Test series. Australia won the toss and batted. The Australia batsmen had failed twice in the previous match, only Warner had looked comfortable. And Morne Morkel was fired up.
In the 41st over Morkel started bowling short to Clarke. That over, he hit Clarke in the ribs. In the 43rd over he hit him on the arm. The 45th over he hit him on the head, hand and in the gut. The hit on the arm broke Clarke’s arm. That was an hour into Clarke’s innings. In all, with that broken arm, Clarke made an unbeaten 161 in 430 minutes. Well over 300 of them with that break. He carried a tired team to a Test win, a series win, and they beat the world’s No. 1 team to take that crown themselves.
There was no packed home crowd, no iconic clean-skin bats or baggy green, it was just surviving a monster, playing with the pain and making his team the best on earth.
The loss to Pakistan that followed was disappointing, but it was still barely a blip. Yet when he got back to Australia, there were whispers. This time from within Cricket Australia that all was not rosy. A hamstring injury had slowed down Clarke, and there were further whispers that he was getting too big for his boots. All those whispers shut down completely when Phillip Hughes passed away.
If Clarke wasn’t the nation’s captain before that day, he was on it. When he stood to give the eulogy, it was an important moment. Then he went out to bat in Adelaide, to lead. He, like many of his team-mates, used it as a public tribute to his mate. But then his back gave out. It wasn’t as brutal as a broken arm, he didn’t have to leave the tour like he did when he was to break up with Lara Bingle, but he had to leave the field. And then he came back on and became the first Australian captain to score a hundred after retiring hurt. He did it with a battered back, a battling technique and a broken heart. When he made the 100th run, he didn’t jump around, he didn’t have the energy, the body or the heart for it. His hundred was battling physical limits and emotional realities.
It was a legendary hundred, a great hundred. Iconic. After it he was so drained he said he may not play again.
Instead he commentated. After retweeting a tweet from a fan suggesting he should join Channel Nine, he joined Channel Nine. Some of his team-mates were not happy with his position of judging them on air. The whispers started again.
This was a man who had made a hundred with a broken arm, made a hundred with a broken heart, won an Ashes 5-0, yet he still couldn’t silence them. With the hamstring injury from Adelaide still a problem, and Steven Smith anointed and ready as his successor. Some started to question his place in the ODI team.
Clarke worked hard, as Warne tried to sway public opinion for him. And Clarke would play in the World Cup. On the eve of the final he would announce his retirement so that the occasion would not be about him. It became all about him for that very reason. Australia won the World Cup, Clarke was given a standing ovation at the same MCG that had viciously booed him the last match before he became Test captain.
Michael Clarke stood in that vicious coliseum a conquering hero. He had conquered the world, and the ground that mocked him. It was another of those perfect images.
When Clarke married in 2012 he released the perfect image via Twitter. It was his wife in a beautiful, extravagant wedding dress smiling down from her white horse at her dream man, who is staring back at her. It was just another perfect Michael Clarke image.
There have been times in Clarke’s history when he rode that white horse. When what he accomplished could only be called great, legendary or iconic. There are many others when he has walked beside it.
When Michael Clarke walked off the ground for the final time at Trent Bridge, he never looked up, and there was no applause for him. There was too much English celebration to hear the whispers. But Clarke heard them anyway.
No matter how hard he tried, how perfect he thought he was, how much control he had, he was never in control of his image. There will be those who call him a great. There will be whispers.