Wednesday, December 29th 2010. Tim Bresnan runs into bowl, looking every bit the Test match bowler. At the other end is Ben Hilfenhaus, looking anything but the Test match batsman. Hilfenhaus nicks one, Prior catches it and the game is over. England have retained the Ashes and the MCG is the scene of a massive party for the players and the Barmy Army. The sprinkler dance is performed en masse, starting a phenomenon that even reaches obscure parts of the world that nobody’s ever heard of, such as Kookamunga, Jonathan Agnew and New Zealand:
But for every winner there has to be a loser. In this case the losing captain was one Ricky Thomas Ponting and though nobody knew it at the time, it was his final game as Australian captain. A broken finger kept him out of the final game of the series, with Michael Clarke stepping in to captain the side to another massive defeat. By the time Australia began their next series, away to Sri Lanka, Ponting had officially resigned the captaincy.
Pup’s reign of terror started with a 3-2 ODI series win, followed by a 1-0 Test series win. After that he was swiftly off to South Africa for an ODI series (which was won 2-1) and a crazy Test series that finished level. Barely ten days later Australia shared another brief but entertaining Test series with New Zealand in which the two sides took it in turn to out-rubbish one another. This was then followed by a much more convincing performance in a 4-0 whitewash of a tepid India side. After that came victory in the world’s longest ODI tournament, a draw in the ODI series in the West Indies and finally a comfortable 2-0 Test series win in the same country.
Frantic stuff. But how do we think Clarke has got on in his first year in charge? In order to answer this we got together two of 51allout’s Australian-based writers: Matt L (a genuine Aussie) and Nichael (as English as Monster Munch and poor dental hygiene, not that the two are directly related) and plied them with gin. Here’s what they had to say:
Nichael Bluth: Before we start, I think it’s important to get on record that Lara Bingle is dog-rough.
Matt Larnach: As a person, I’m still not Clarke’s biggest fan. Too photogenic. Too chummy with the media. Looks like he spends quite a bit on hair product. Not the worst attributes to have, but not what you want in an Australian Test captain. Frankly if he grew a moustache and appeared in more VB ads I would be more favourably disposed towards him.
As a cricketer though I am, like most followers here, far more impressed after his performance in the SCG Test of the past summer. Not just for his runs (329*) but for his declaration. It was exactly the right statement that showed he really did put the team before himself. He displayed the same sort of attitude after the Cape Town Test, where he refuted any suggestions that he should feel content with his 151 in the first innings after what happened to the team in the second. But honestly, not many here were following what was happening in South Africa, wheras the SCG, hosting its 100th Test no less, was about as big a stage as he could hope for.
Also, I am surprised about the Lara Bingle comment. From my vantage point it appears the entire basis of English culture is built on vastly over-endowed but otherwise fairly average looking crumpets.
NB: For me, I thought everything was set up for Clarke to fail as captain. He inherited the worst Australian side for maybe 30 years, with the former captain still hanging around like a bad smell. There was all the Bingle-gate stuff in the press beforehand as well.
[Editor’s note: for those who didn’t know, Clarke was formerly engaged to model Lara Bingle but left Australia’s 2010 tour of New Zealand for ‘personal reasons’. These reasons turned out to be him publicly breaking up with Bingle after being (unsurprisingly) angry at her selling her story to the same women’s magazine that published a nude photo of her in the shower taken by ex-boyfriend, AFL star and brilliant TV presenter Brendan Fevola)
Apparently he really likes Steven Seagal, even after he ripped off Hamish and Andy.]
NB: But despite all that, for me Clarke has done a really good job. He’s given the impression that he’s absolutely 100% focused on his cricket, with no off-field distractions any more. I think having a new backroom team has definitely helped in that respect, as well as the fact that the results have been pretty good, which obviously keeps everyone happy.
NB: For me it’s been a massive improvement. Ponting captained mostly by numbers, whereas Clarke is a lot more creative. Look at how much he’s used the likes of Mike Hussey and David Warner as partnership breakers. Ponting would almost never do that sort of thing, even on those rare occasions when Warne, McGrath and Steve Smith hadn’t cleaned up. Plus that declaration behind against the West Indies. Ponting would have been turning in his grave, had he not been sat in the dressing room, very much alive.
ML: I think Ponting suffered not only through his own conservatism but also because of the environment he captained under, and in this respect I think Mickey Arthur in particular deserves a lot of credit. Before Mickey, the role of the Australian coach was to ensure that a good team continued to perform to its potential. John Buchanan was seemingly brought in to teach the team Buddhist philosophy in a hopelessly futile attempt to install the principle of empathy towards the opposition into them, whilst Tim Nielsen was there to make sure the fatties didn’t shirk on the last few laps round the training ground.
Arthur’s role is more focused on ensuring that performances didn’t continue to dip whilst new players are being blooded, and his approach seems to be based on encouraging the players to play to their strengths. With Clarke that has always been his aggression, which we are now seeing in his captaincy, particularly with his declarations and bowling changes. So far so good, although he’s cut his declarations a bit fine on occasion, particularly in the second Test against the West Indies. You get the feeling Ponting never felt the freedom to captain the team with the same sense adventure that Clarke has, and it will ultimately reflect badly on his legacy.
NB: I can’t argue with any of that. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s had some pretty nice series to start with. Sri Lanka were a rabble at that point, India were a complete disgrace and the West Indies were their own worst enemies. You can only beat what’s in front of you, but it’s certainly easier if the opposition help as well. If they’d lost to the West Indies having declared behind there whould have been no end of criticism (and probably rightfully so).
Something else to consider is that I think Australia have been a bit lucky with injuries – Doug Bollinger’s fitness and Mitchell Johnson’s injury has avoided a couple of Harmison-esque pick them/drop them/pick them again scenarios and forced Australia to look elsewhere. The new guys that came in have done well, hence the side has moved on.
The real challenges will come over the next eighteen months or so – South Africa will fancy their chances in Australia over the summer and then there’s an away series in India and back to back Ashes. Lose all four of those series (which is unlikely, but not impossible) and there’ll be a very different view of Clarke and his captaincy.
ML: In this case it really is the Ashes that counts for all. The tour of India used to be the standard by which captains were judged, but I get the feeling the team would happily roll over on the rank turners in India this time next year if it meant a better chance of regaining the urn, either away or, more realistically, on the return home leg.
But at the moment it’s safe to say that Clarke has at least half of the Australian supporters fully behind him as captain, if not much more. Wouldn’t have thought that would have been the case twelve months ago.
ML: Mixed. He’ll come in as a replacement for Marlon Samuels, who is off to catch pneumonia in England, with the mighty Pune Warriors. So no problem there. The issue that most seem to be forgetting is that he’s not terribly good at this T20 gig. His form with the national team was sketchy to say the least before he retired from the format last year, and he doesn’t even bother playing it either in the Big Bash or with Western Suburbs in the Sydney Grade Competition.
Obviously I’m hoping he will lift Pune into finals contention, because they’re looking more than a little bit shaky at the moment, but I’m not completely convinced he’ll be a success. The last thing Pune needs is another top order batsman who can’t score faster than a run a ball. It’ll also be interesting to see how he fares under Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy. Personally I’m hoping they come to blows at one stage. That would be a real Citi Moment of Success.
NB: For me, this is a mistake. Given his chronic back problems, using a rest period after months of non-stop cricket to go off and earn a few bucks playing hit and giggle isn’t a great idea and sets a poor example to the youngsters in the Test side (such as Pattinson and Starc). What if he gets injured? What happened to the ‘putting the team first’ that was mentioned earlier? Plus he really isn’t suited to the format at all. On the other hand,
if when Pune reach the final, there’s still roughly two months before Australia’s first ODI in England, so that should give him a fair break, which he’ll presumably spend having sexy time with Kyly Boldy.
So there you are. What have we learned from this debate, apart from a need to delete our internet search history? Well, Clarke has made a positive start which bodes well for Australia, although conclusions must be tempered by the fact that the majority of the opposition sides haven’t been particularly challenging. But from what has been seen so far, we must conclude that the Board made the correct decision to appoint him, which many probably wouldn’t have expected a year ago. Nonetheless, the first-time he loses a series (especially if it’s against England), or finds a bad run of form, the approval-o-meter will no doubt begin to swing quickly back to where it started. And how much comfort would Miss Boldy’s charms offer then? Quite a lot, probably, to be fair.