In Australia, the captain of the cricket team is, in many ways, as important a figure in the eyes of the community as the prime minister. Michael Clarke’s position is one of the most important in Australian public life, and that was never more clear than when he gave the eulogy at the funeral of batsman Phillip Hughes last summer.
There he was, beamed live around the world after an extraordinary outpouring of emotion following Hughes’s death from a bouncer during a match. And the way Clarke coped with it was admirable. His place in the Australian psyche, their respect for him, grew enormously out of that eloquent ten-minute speech for a lost mate. It was a moment where you have to stand up and perform. Clarke did that exceptionally.
The relationship between Clarke and the Australian public is strong, but it hasn’t always been easy. The media often portrays him as a man in his own bubble. People have sometimes said it’s too much about him and not enough about the team. Probably most of that goes back to his relationship with model and reality TV star Lara Bingle, when he was a young man first making his way in the era of “celebrity-itis”.
Australians, as a rule, like their sportsmen to be understated. They make exceptions, of course – they let Shane Warne off because he’s a bit of a larrikin and they expect him to be as he is – but they can also be harsh in their judgement of those who seem a little taken with the trappings of life. But to judge Clarke like that is unfair when you look at his commitment to the game.
The most important thing for any captain, quite apart from any decisions he makes, is to perform. Remember how Clarke batted against South Africa’s Morne Morkel in Cape Town last year, scoring a courageous 161 not out, batting through a fractured shoulder – that was as good an innings as anyone could have played in Test cricket.
Clarke can play the kind of inspirational innings that few other cricketers are able to do. Unless England can come up with a few surprises in the bowling department, Australia are going to make a lot of runs – and Clarke will be at the fore-front of that.
Clarke is one of Australia’s more attacking and successful captains. His body has occasionally betrayed him, but perhaps the worst is behind him after an apparently successful operation last summer. He holds the Ashes, he led Australia’s perfectly timed run to win the World Cup, and now, at the age of 34, he has one last chance to win the Ashes in England.
All captains have to deal with the quality of their ammunition, and the battle of the new ball in this Ashes series will be fascinating. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad can do a lot of damage, but in Mitchell Starc and veteran Ryan Harris, Australia are more than a match for them.
Australia’s bowlers frightened the hell out of England’s lower order in the last Ashes series, and from there it became a doddle. England have to find a way to combat the aggression of an Australian with a missile in his hand, and not get fazed by a little bit of chat in the middle.
It’s in the nature of the Australian players, including Clarke, to put the wind up the opposition, but there are a few on the England side who aren’t afraid of a bit of sparring either. Some might remember a certain comment from Clarke about a broken arm the last time England were in Australia. Maybe he needs to be a bit more understated for the sake of lounge room entertainment, but it takes two to tango. In any case, these are sideshows to the main event.
I am cautiously optimistic. I’ve seen things go wrong before, and it only takes somebody falling over a cricket ball for the momentum to shift, but if everyone stays fit, Australia should win the Ashes. Clarke needs to take the initiative early in the series. Do that, and he will do what no Australian side has managed in 14 years: win the Ashes in England.
Jim Maxwell was talking to James Gill
The TMS team are covering the Ashes on Radio 5 Live Sports Extra
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