It is always sad to see a once great player struggling for form as Michael Clarke has done throughout this Ashes summer. His announcement, at the end of the Trent Bridge Test that he would retire after the fifth and final Test at the Oval did not come as a huge surprise. Following over a decade of international cricket, several serious injuries and the tragic death of Phillip Hughes, the game has taken its toll on the Australian captain.
The game has changed a great deal since the batsman from New South Wales made his debut in 2004 against India. When he walked into the Australian dressing room for the first time he came into a side that was number one in the world and featured the likes of Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne. It was an atmosphere where confidence was high and he was encouraged to succeed. During his first series against India, where he particularly impressed against the spinners, he seemed at ease with international cricket.
As his career continued, Australia’s dominance has diminished somewhat but he has been an integral part of the new generation’s development. Playing alongside those all-time greats set his standards at a high level and it is something he has maintained throughout his career. He is an incredibly thoughtful and instinctive cricketer and it is this skill that has made him one of the best captains the game has seen in recent years.
As a batsman he has become something of a throwback. The modern game is about everything in an instant. It is about hitting it harder, hitting it further, bowling it faster and most importantly ensuring quick results. Clarke was a timeless player. He was blessed with incredibly nimble feet that resulted in him being regarded as one of the best players of spin the game has seen. When he batted at number five he was able to come in and dominate attacks once the ball had got a little older. He was not aggressive by today’s overly aggressive standards but he was able to keep the scoreboard moving along without undue risk.
It was when he inherited the captaincy following Ponting’s departure that he really stood up to be counted. The side that he took over was low on confidence and, without being too harsh, one of the weakest Australian sides in living memory. He scored big runs against England, India and South Africa and led from the front. With the ability to put big totals on the scoreboard he was then able to back his bowlers with attacking fields.
His captaincy is often referred to as ‘funky’ as he is far from orthodox; he’ll often employ unnatural fielding positions on a hunch and more often than not they have worked. When he changes the field he does it meticulously, standing at the stumps and working out the exact angles. Having a good bowling attack for the last few years has really allowed him to develop as a leader and enabled him to demonstrate his ideas and tactics.
Being the main focus of the team has not come without its difficulties though. Speculation regarding his popularity within the team has always been rife and rifts with former players, such as Simon Katich, have been well documented. His friendship with Warne, with whom he spoke to at length before announcing his decision to retire, is also one that grabs the attention of the media.
Following the tragic death of Hughes last November, however, the country rallied around the captain. The way he conducted himself throughout the weeks that followed was hugely impressive. He shouldered the nation’s despair and united everyone in their grief. He behaved with phenomenal decency and showed an incredible character.
That he then led his country to World Cup success, captaining with distinction, on the back of the Hughes tragedy, further underlined his credentials as a cricketer and a leader.
With the result of the Ashes already decided, it would be fitting for Clarke to sign off with a contribution of some note at the Oval. It is never nice to see someone leave the game on the decline and he in particular deserves a fitting farewell. He has been a wonderful servant to the game and his presence will be missed, not only in his own dressing room but throughout Test cricket as a whole.
By Andy Hunter