There is no doubt that Michael Clarke is a superb batsman blessed with talent, determination and concentration.
Triple and double centuries plus long sessions at the crease provide more than enough evidence to suggest that a Clarke without nagging back and leg injuries could quite possibly go down as our greatest modern day batsmen.
Unfortunately, his legacy will not merely reflect the skill in batsmanship that he possesses but also some of the flawed decisions and choices he has made in recent years.
With an extremely difficult benchmark to aspire to after two decades of amazing success under Allan Border, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, the current side was always going to need time to rebuild and develop its own characteristics.
However, as the team battled through a demoralising Ashes defeat in Australia in 2010-11, a dubious rotation policy and the handing out of the once precious Australian baggy green and ODI caps to cricketers that failed dismally and have since been put to pasture, Clarke sat at the helm.
It would serve us well to never forget this tumultuous time under the reign of Mickey Arthur where our most romanticised and heralded national sporting team had become somewhat of a laughing stock in many circles.
These decisions were not solely of Clarke’s own making, yet that is indeed the point, as future Darren Lehmann-driven decisions indicate that it was indeed his influence, and not Clarke’s, that reshaped and redefined Australian cricket in the post Shane Warne-Glenn McGrath era.
Arthur’s appointment in November 2011 led to Australia managing a measly 10 from 19 Test wins and a horrendous 4-0 defeat at the hands of India; a Champions Trophy tilt that failed to produce a single win and the rather ludicrous homework scandal that saw players sent home from a tour for the first time in my living memory. This all contributed to a growing lack of confidence within the Australian team’s greatest critic and barometer – the public.
I find it hard to imagine Clarke’s predecessors presiding over such a farce. Tremendous state cricketers like John Hastings, Michael Beer, Xavier Doherty, Rob Quiney and Matthew Wade were elevated to representative status where they failed dismally. Wade being the most disappointing as his batting often hid the significant flaws in his technical proficiency behind the stumps. Serious omissions were also noted, Brad Hodge being the most obvious example in addition to the bizarre reluctance to acknowledge the talents of Jackson Bird and James Faulkner earlier.
Lehmann’s current persistence with Faulkner, and his development into one of the finest ODI cricketers in the world, reflects his influence in the dressing room.
Clarke presided over much of the indecision of this period and batted beautifully throughout. The criticisms that came to pass after some of the more challenging defeats undoubtedly led to questions as to his suitability as a leader.
The immediate success of Steve Smith and the continued efforts of George Bailey further highlight the impact of the successful culture created by Lehmann as opposed to the influence of Clarke as a leader.
With the dismissal of Arthur, Cricket Australia acted on the worst kept secret in the country and appointed the then recently retired Lehmann to guide Australia’s fortunes in the immediate future.
The instantaneous success that followed reflected a significant shift in attitude in the dressing room. A more ruthless and, dare I say, Australian approach to cricket that had been missing since the retirement of the two greatest statistical bowlers in the history of Australian cricket was evident.
Throughout the transition Clarke didn’t seem to change. He was there speaking confidently about the team under Arthur and claiming that they were playing good cricket despite appalling results. After the injection of Lehmann and the implementation of a more Australian outlook on the basics of the game, Clarke remained in charge and his message remained consistent.
With less focus on homework tasks and high performance managers, Lehmann stripped back the layers of confusion that had hamstrung the team and fostered feelings of confidence and aggression that had been missing since the stern captaincy of Waugh. As soon as Lehmann arrived there was more confidence in Clarke’s words, yet the mantra appeared to be the same. The question was raised. It wasn’t working before, why will it work now?
The sum of all the parts seemed to suggest that Lehmann had made the difference and not Clarke.
The new found aggression and confidence seemed to, in fact, bring out an ugly side of Clarke. The verbosity of the captain in regards to the aggression of his spearhead Mitchell Johnson was taken to a rather ugly level against England in 2013.
The threats of a broken arm and the dangers facing any batsman in the modern game are all put into perspective after the tragic passing of Phil Hughes. Before fellow Roarers launch into a tirade of abuse, consider whether Clarke would make those statements again after the loss of his friend in such tragic circumstances.
I feel most would agree that some degree of perspective may modify his on-field commentary as he unleashes Mitch at competent batsmen in the future. Note, Jimmy Anderson was the target in 2013 and hardly a serious threat.
The beautiful and articulate words he spoke at Hughes’ funeral capture an obvious awareness of the larger more spiritual reality of life and conveyed a humanist approach that both impressed and surprised many.
The seamless transition Smith has made into the captaincy is further evidence of the stability that Lehmann has created in the dressing room. All of a sudden it is harder to get out of the team than to get in, just like it always was, and the captain seems to wield a power and authority that commands respect from the troops.
Some media dare suggest that Smith is the sensible option moving forward considering the injuries Clark faces in the short term. The team is humming moving into the World Cup and despite Clarke being a senior member of the top order, nobody would suggest that an Australian team without Clarke is without hope. In fact, many feel our chances are actually just as strong.
All in all, I hope Clarke does pass the fitness test set down for February 21. He is an asset to the team when in supreme batting form.
I also hope that he can reflect on some of the decisions and actions he has taken over the last 10 years in order to improve himself and his team. A plethora of cricket lies ahead and the impetus built by Lehmann needs further bricks to be laid upon its foundations.