There was not an eyelash out of place. His skin was flawless. The lighting was perfect. The bat was sponsorless. And Michael Clarke bathed in the adulation people save for prophets as he made 329 not out.
Each shot was assisted by balletic artistry. Each moment a perfect representation of how cricket should look. Interviews were given during the innings. He floated from end to end. India’s role was little more than that of the concerned extras. A million romance writers working for a million years couldn’t write a better moment of perfection.
So at Lord’s, when all Clarke could do was stand still and headbutt a ball from Stuart Broad, it was clear that this wasn’t the Clarke Australia wanted, needed or were promised. This was the bad Clarke. The human piñata. The invisible back complaint was stopping him saving his team.
At Old Trafford, the signs weren’t good. Clarke was seen walking gingerly around the nets in the days before the Test. It didn’t get better when he hit the middle.
While many were talking about the Usman Khawaja double dismissal, Clarke had snaked back up the order to No. 4. The position that had mocked him so far in his career. And when Jimmy Anderson went past him twice in the first over as he groped eagerly for the ball, it seemed the same would happen. Clarke looked so bad, that his only form of defence was spending some time in the middle of the pitch with Chris Rogers trying to ensure it was the last over of the session. He failed at that.
At his best, Clarke’s back foot doesn’t move. He doesn’t get back and across like other batsmen. It just stays there, giving him balance and grace. Except here, it was moving. And it was moving the wrong way. It was inching back like a tailender. Clarke wasn’t still and ready, he was moving and unsettled. It was a twitch.
Clarke does a lot of things; he can waft outside off, lose focus near breaks, and struggle to not go at a moving ball. But he isn’t a flincher. He’s not afraid of fast bowling. He doesn’t back away. This is a man who averages over 50 in Test cricket. He’s not a young boy finding his way. Yet, that is what he looked like. A player with talent who was worried that he would be hit.
When the ball was full, he didn’t suddenly come good either. Balls were left preciously close to the stumps, or they were left off the face of the bat. He used the inside edge. The ball missed the outside edge. It was by far and away the ugliest and worst Clarke has batted since he was sainted in Sydney. It was the anti-Sydney. Nothing was perfect. Nothing was working.
Now it could have been a form thing, just a bad day, or even just having too many things on his mind. It could have also been that damned back.
A back injury is not sexy. It’s not a gaping wound from your chin that the bandages can’t stop the blood seeping through. It has no scars, no great slow motion shots of bones breaking, and unless you’re watching someone closely, it can be hard to pick up at all. Clarke showed some signs of it. A stiff attempt to duck the short ball. Bad footwork to the seamers. And running between the wickets slightly under his best pace.
For the first 20 runs, whether Clarke’s back was the problem or not, there was a problem, and could have been forgiven to hire a team of lawyers to sue anyone who showed the footage for defamation.
Had England had a leg slip for Clarke, like they did at Lord’s, that would have been as far as he got. Instead Clarke changed. The short balls from the pacemen were pulled. He used his feet to Swann. Any loose ball was scored from. It was still not Clarke as perfect pictorial elegance, but it was a free scoring Clarke. His journey from 20 to 50 was off as many balls. He was in.
Clarke may average 42.76 away from home, but since his beatification; he’s not travelled much. And since his beatification dismissing a set Clarke is not an easy thing. In some cases, it just doesn’t happen. The only way to stop him is by putting a microphone in his face at the end of a session. Clarke was not batting like he was invincible, but like he’d been lucky to make it that far, and he wanted to not just survive, but try and damage England. He played the uppercut over the slips cordon. Hit Tim Bresnan over mid-off. And Slashed at wide ones when he felt like it.
His team lost the plot and their coach in the Champions Trophy. They lost the first Test by a whisker. They lost the second by a megalodon. By just suggesting they could win a series Clarke could make a whole room laugh. Not capitalising on a good start today would have been handing the Ashes over in a far more friendly way than any sponsor could on a podium.
Rogers was in top form and more aggressive than usual as he punished England’s constant overpitching. Steve Smith had more luck than Lyle Lovett. They both helped, but it was their captain who made this an Australian day.
Clarke doesn’t look like a fighter, and he often doesn’t bat like one. The pretty guys often have the hardest time convincing us that they are really trying. Clarke might have scratched, scraped and scragged early, but he still hit the ball through cover like it was intended to be. When he used his feet, the ESPNcricinfo commentary referred to it as “feet shimmering over the surface”. If Steve Waugh had made it in his more military style, people would have rushed to call it a fighting captain’s knock that took a man filled with intestinal fortitude who left his blood sweat and tears out on the ground as he dragged his side to safety. They may not have even mentioned shimmering feet.
Aesthetically, this was not perfection. But for Australia, this was a perfect imperfect innings. They have never needed Clarke’s runs more than they did today. And he made them by any means necessary. Not on a pedestal, but down in the mud.