Michael Clarke: Pup grows up

The Ashes awaits. And Michael Clarke, anointed a future Test player while in his teens, has come of age and is looking for revenge on British soil.
Michael Clarke loves a shower. Loves it. Coming in for break from a Test innings, he rushes out of his gear and into the bathroom. Even waiting to bat, he will grab any opportunity to get wet. He laughs in a way that suggests he has had to justify his habit to teammates for years. "I shower to try to relax and cool down. If I've been waiting an hour and a half and am next in, I'll definitely have a shower. I love a shower."
He showers because he sweats, and he sweats because he can't wait. Michael Clarke is quick and bright. In person, he is good evidence for the idea that sporting performance reveals personality. Busy, effervescent and likeable on the field, so he is in conversation.
First in line to the most prestigious job in Australian sport, Clarke's nervous energy is anything but uneasy. A consolidated 47-Test reg­ular in the Australian cricket team,
a one-day and Twenty20 veteran and sometime captain, he says he loves his cricket more than when he was an obsessed 15-year-old and is very happy with an off-field life of handsome financial rewards and a glamorous fiancée. "Without doubt I'm as happy as I've been in my life," he says, and if he's not being genuine then he's a terrible loss to the theatre. He exudes the kind of lust for life that propels young children out of bed at sunrise every day. He isn't nicknamed 'Pup' for nothing.
But Clarke's energy needs somewhere to go, and he can't wait to get down to business: score runs, win Test matches, redress the blemish of losing the Ashes the last time Australia toured England, in 2005. It's the anticipation he can't bear.
"I get really nervous waiting to bat. I listen to music, talk or read the paper, or get up and burn off some energy, try to calm down. But I just want to get out there. Maybe I should have been an opener.
"The hardest part of batting is getting from your seat in the changing room out to the crease," he says. "That walk is a lonely time, especially if you've got doubts."
But doubts have only rarely impinged on a career with a single, upward trajectory. Born in Liverpool, Clarke is a loyal Sydney western suburbs boy. His father played cricket for Western Suburbs and local rugby league, before owning an indoor sports centre in which Michael was hothoused.
"My whole life was rugby league in winter, cricket in summer. They were my Dad's two sports and I just wanted to follow him. But soon the cricket took over, and it was cricket all day every day, in winter indoor nets and sessions with the bowling machine, then when it got warm, outdoor cricket."
He was awarded a contract with New South Wales at age 18. "I was doing everything I wanted to do and getting paid for it."
By 21 he was chosen for Australia, first in the shortened game and then, in India in 2004, in Test cricket. As a 23-year-old he went to the final frontier where Australia had not won a series since 1969, and scored 151 in his first innings at Bangalore against all the pressure and mayhem of Indian spin and pace bowling in Indian conditions.
Under Adam Gilchrist's captaincy, Australia wrapped up the series by the third Test. Then Clarke (after taking six wickets for nine runs with his finger-spinners in the lost fourth Test) came home and scored another century, against New Zealand, in his first Test innings on home soil. He was confident, but not cocky: a Ricky Ponting with smoother edges. Shane Warne more or less adopted him, anointing him with his No.23 one-day shirt. Clarke wore an earring and dyed his hair. Red lights were flashing, but for a while he avoided the crash and burn. His seniors noticed that even though he admired Warne, he didn't make an idol of him; still only a boy, Clarke was his own man.
"You're pretty much on your own when you first come into a team, and it's hard," he says. "What was great about the leaders in that team - Ponting, Warne, Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath - was that as a young guy I was never told, 'Shut up and sit in the corner'. Those guys allowed me to be the person I was, even voice an opinion ... not that I said a whole lot.
I was more interested in learning from those guys. But the great thing about their leadership was that there was no pressure or intimidation. For example, I never drank beer. I was never told I had to, never pressured."
It was nothing but blue skies for Clarke until the team toured England. Early on the 2005 Ashes tour, unity cracked. Andrew Symonds was out drinking all night in Cardiff, and was dropped when he turned up still drunk the next morning, for a one-day game against Bangladesh. Australia lost.
The squad regrouped and won the first Test, at Lord's. In his second innings at the home of cricket, Clarke scored a dashing 91 off 106 balls.
A century seemed inevitable. He drove loosely at a wide ball from Matthew Hoggard, edged it against his boot and it rolled into the stumps.
The series, for the team and Clarke, turned in the next match at Edgbaston. Late on the third day, Clarke and Warne were building a potentially match-winning partnership after an early collapse. It augured as a dream coming true for the friends until on the third-last ball of the day Steve Harmison bowled Clarke, on 30, a searing short ball that crunched his hand. He followed up with what looked like a beamer, heading for Clarke's chest. Wrong-footed, Clarke was glued to his heels as the ball looped softly, beat his defence, and bowled him. His England series wasn't bad - he made a start in every innings but one - but he didn't make the big score.
"The batting never got easier, no matter how long I'd been in. I'd found that the longer I was batting, the easier it got. But in England when you got through the new ball, it'd start reverse swinging, and if I got through that they'd put fielders out deep to stop me hitting boundaries. I was a young kid, I wanted to put on a show for the crowd, and I couldn't accept that my freedom to score was being limited."
Clarke retained his place after the lost Ashes series, but failed at home to the West Indies and spent several months on the outer. It was a deep pothole in his hitherto smooth ride.
"There's no doubt it hurt. It hurt a lot at the time, mostly because we'd lost the Ashes, and then because I was dropped."
It must have felt a heavy fall from grace. He made a double-century for NSW and was reinstated, as a temporary replacement for injured players, for two Tests in Bangladesh in 2006. He was not a part of Australia's selected team to contest the Ashes at home in 2006-07 until Shane Watson withdrew with injury. In Brisbane, Clarke made a half-century. In the second Test, Australia's famous last-day victory in Adelaide, he scored his first Test century in two years. The comeback enables him, now, to place his omission in a narrative arc.
"Getting dropped was the best thing for my career, because it allowed me to get away from the game ... and understand the things I'd need to be successful."
Nearly every great Australian player has been dropped early in his career - including Bradman. But being dropped, and coming back, doesn't guarantee long-term success. Clarke has now played 47 Tests. Clarke averages 47 runs an innings. He is at a crossroad where his performances during the next four or five seasons will determine whether he steps up a level and averages in the fifties, like the elite - or slips back like so many others.
"One thing I've learnt is not to look too far ahead," he says. "Don't look too far backwards at the horrible times, and don't look too far ahead. Since I was dropped, I've chilled a lot as a person and as a player. It's impossible to think of outcomes. Who knows, I might have a few ducks and my average will be back to 40. But my mindset is that, although I'm not starting my career, I'm still learning so much about the way I play. I feel I'm twice the player I was when I made my debut."
Returning from exile, he tightened his technique, decided that a good forward defence or a good 'leave' can be just as powerful in asserting dominance over a bowler as hitting a four. He learnt to make hard runs. "If I make a hundred off 300 balls, it doesn't faze me anymore."
Clarke is either a very happy dynamo or a superb liar.
"I'm stoked where I'm at the moment, 28-years-old and vice captain of the greatest sporting team in the world in my opinion. My love of cricket is stronger now than when I was 15."
Having just been appointed a "Gillette champion" for Australia, joining fellow sports luminaries including Roger Federer, Thierry Henry and Tiger Woods, Clarke is, like any true sports fan, beside himself with excitement.
"Look at those three guys. I'm stoked. I've met Roger, and hope I meet all three of them." Will he ask for autographs? "Probably. Definitely photos."
Clarke's admiration for those three extends to their off-field behaviour. Australia's first wave of full-time professional cricketers - the likes of Border, the Waughs and Warne - were not always at ease with the exposure of their private lives. As one of
the second wave, Clarke says he always expected such scrutiny. This extends to public curiosity over his engage­ment to model Lara Bingle.
"I guess I accepted at an early age that there's more to this than what you do on the field. Your performance in your sport is the main priority, but the public looks at what you do off the field just as closely."
But the off-field and on-field soon become entangled. Clarke and Symonds had a falling-out when the Queenslander took an infamous fishing trip rather than going to a team meeting when Clarke was Australian one-day captain last year. They say the friendship has been rebuilt, but, as 2005 showed, a long Ashes tour strains cricketers' private lives. That tour was characterised by the divided loyalties caused when players brought their partners and children. When the team started losing, some former greats reasserted their belief that families and tours should not mix.
Clarke, who was single during the 2005 tour and says the politics "passed me by", is an adherent of partners being allowed to join long tours.
"Having a relationship is never easy, especially when you're away so much. I'm all for having partners on tour. I love it when Lara comes on tour ... I can't imagine being away from her for five months."
There is no understating the importance of this Ashes tour. For those who were there in 2005, such as Clarke, Ponting and Simon Katich, there is the spur of unfinished business. Can Clarke perform as well in England as he has elsewhere? Can Australia? For Australia to win the series, it's hard to imagine them doing so without Clarke batting as well as he did in 2006-07.
"Sure, I want to do well, but it's not all about 2005," he says. "We've got
a whole new group of guys, some of whom haven't played in England at all, let alone in 2005. The key is that the senior guys need to lead the team with bat and ball and in the field, take on the grunt work, and let the younger guys enjoy what is one of the greatest tours you can ever go on."
Clarke goes there now as a senior guy: the VC, trying to impart the lessons he learnt from his elders to newcomers like Phillip Hughes. He relishes leadership. Most Australian captains have craved it. It is only when he is asked if he "wants it" that Clarke pauses, knocked momentarily off his stride. It's not always the done thing to be openly ambitious. Carefully he replies: "You don't need a (c) or a (vc) beside your name to be a leader in the group. Look at Warney - not the captain, but definitely a leader.
"It's for others to say whether I'm a good leader or a bad leader, I just want to earn respect. But I have to say that I think it brings out the best in me ... statistics don't lie. I've batted a lot better when Ricky's been asking me to step up."
His greatest fear is missing the opportunities when they come.
"I usually know within the first few balls if I'm 'on'," he says. "You look at Ricky Ponting, and out of [221] Test innings he's had 37 great days, when he's scored a century. Even for the best, it doesn't happen very often. You really need to grasp it. The days you get angry are when you're 'on' and you miss out."
One thing he can't promise is to exude stillness and calm, to stop sweating and showering. That, after all, would not be Michael Clarke. Talk about going back to Lord's and, this time, grasping the opportunity he missed, and he is the excited
kid again.
"Lord's, what a ground, it's amazing. I can't wait to get back ... and I guarantee if I get to 91 this time, I won't be playing the shot I did in 2005."

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