Michael Clarke could always bat.
He could bat when he came to England with the Australian Under-19 side in 1999. He could bat when he made his Test debut in India in 2004. He could bat when he took over the captaincy of his country a year ago and he can bat now. If you wanted, you could even take his Sydney epic as evidence that he can bat. But why would you need to do that when he has proved his worth, his mettle, and his skill many times before?
Australia remains a country with a deep, knowing, vital relationship with cricket. Not as visible, or as showy, or as brash as India’s, but important nonetheless. In Australia, as in India, one of the leitmotifs of the game’s growth was the way in which it enabled a young country to show its nascent capabilities to its former colonial masters. Because of this, and because it’s just a great game, cricket remains a central part of Australia’s cultural DNA.
And Australia produces great cricketers. Among batsmen there is Trumper, there is Ponsford, and, of course, there is Bradman. There is Archie Jackson. There is Greg Chappell and Border and Ponting. There are the Waugh twins. Well, Steve, certainly. Perhaps there is Hayden. At a stretch you could possibly even consider Mike Hussey. And if you can consider Mike Hussey you can certainly consider Michael Clarke.
With the exception of Greg Chappell - a man who some of us feel doesn’t quite receive his due either - all Australia’s post-war greats have been simple, unembellished players and men, their personalities as reflective of the characteristic Australian capacity for bluntness and distaste for pretension as the way they go about building an innings.
Clarke is perceived to be different. He has tattoos, has dated models. As Mike Selvey put it so well this past week, he is ‘a smooth-skinned, bright-eyed, baby-faced fellow from the metrosexual generation’. Someone, perhaps, a little out of step with most Australians’ perceptions of themselves and how an Australian man - and especially its most senior sportsman - is supposed to be.
All this is true, but it doesn’t stop you being surprised by the way in which he has often appeared to be held in such lukewarm regard by his compatriots. For Clarke is as good, and mature, and passionate a batsman as it is possible to find on the contemporary world stage.
In traditional Australian style his batting is without artifice. Early in an innings he will be watchful, maintaining his shape, leaving when necessary, working the ball around. Once set he will look to attack, especially against spin, his decisive footwork and range of shot keeping him one step ahead of the bowler. There is little that stands out or makes him unusual, apart from the smooth edges of his technique and his calling, which is as loud and definitive and easily identifiable as you will ever hear, repeatedly reminding the watcher of his assertive commitment to the task at hand. In front of a microphone he is balanced and jauntily articulate. His love for the game, the way it lives inside him, is obvious and unaffected.
All the truly great players who made Australian cricket what it was in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first were born well before Clarke: the Waughs in ‘65, Warne in ‘69, McGrath in ‘70, Gilchrist in ‘71, Ponting in ‘74. With the exception of Ponting all have left the stage. Now is a time of adaptation and adjustment such as Australia hasn’t known for a quarter-century
Clarke, born in 1981, is comfortably the best Australian batsman of his generation, and he, as captain, will be his country’s standard-bearer as the coming years unfold and a different, younger side seeks to regain its place at the top of the world game.
All the signs are that Clarke, orthodox but adaptable, and a more instinctively perceptive captain than his predecessor, is the right man to do this. What is more, it increasingly appears as though the Australian public know this to be so. It may, strangely, have taken 329 undefeated runs at the cradle of the Australian game to convince them, when 151 at Newlands, or 136 at Lord’s, or many other past innings, should have done just as well.
This time last year, with Ponting deposed and Australia humiliated by their oldest foe, things were very different. Clarke was captain, but he neither had runs nor trust. Now he has both.
As someone once said, form is temporary but class is permanent.
Michael Clarke could always, always, bat.