Back in October 2004, a flamboyant 23-year old from New South Wales became the 389th player to don the Baggy Green. In his very first Test innings at Bangalore, he handled the likes of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh with scant regard, smashing a delightful 151 as Australia took the first step towards achieving a milestone series win in India. Michael Clarke had announced himself to the world then, and eight years later he is set to begin his fourth series in India, this time as captain. The ‘Pup’ has come a long way, and is now the central figure of this Australian team, which is a work in progress and is widely regarded as the ‘weakest’ to touch upon Indian shores.
Clarke did not have the best of support in spite of a blistering start to his career, mainly because the public could not simply relate to him due to his apparent ‘rash boy’ image. He also had his share of failures and his career itself was in question a couple of times when he was going through a rough patch, both professionally and personally. A mediocre 2010-11 Ashes series followed, where he averaged less than 22, and the Australian public and selectors could have easily made him the scapegoat once again. He was in fact, leading the side in place of an injured Ricky Ponting when Australia were thrashed by an innings in the final Test at Sydney to lose the rubber 1-3. Two years down the line, the selectors very much deserve a pat on the back for not losing faith in Clarke. In spite of the rising public opinion which believed that he was not fit to become captain and that he was ‘un-Australian’ compared to his predecessors, Clarke was named as full-time Test captain for the Sri Lanka tour of 2011. And since then, he has been growing from strength to strength, both as batsman and as captain.
Overseas wins in Sri Lanka and the West Indies, a 4-0 thrashing of India at home, a mind-blowing calendar year of 2012 (1595 runs, averaging 106 with 4 double-tons) – slowly and steadily Clarke has won over the affections of the public. Captaincy has brought out the best in him, and he was at his sublime best against India at home, a series which was crucial for him to remind the fans that he was indeed long-term material. Not only did he bat brilliantly (he scored 329* at Sydney), he also proved to be a shrewd captain who tactically subdued his opposite number in a ruthless manner. Later in the Caribbean, Clarke displayed his penchant for bold declarations, attacking fields and a brave brand of leadership. And to say he was regarded as ‘un-Australian’ by many!
Starting tomorrow, Clarke embarks upon his toughest Test as captain. Four Tests in India, leading an inexperienced team with stalwarts such as Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey having hung their boots – it is a challenge that he will relish. He might have already faced world champions South Africa a few months ago, but he himself has admitted that the tour of India has to be his greatest test yet. Captaincy has definitely improved his batting, and he will be expected to lead his side by example, given that he is easily the best player of spin in the Australian ranks. He has been quite a thorn in India’s flesh – he averages 54 in 18 Tests with 5 hundreds, and has developed into one of the best batsmen in the world today – a Test average of 52 in 89 matches speaks for that.
India are no longer the same invincible side at home, and fortunately for Clarke he will be up against a side which has been much beleaguered in recent times. He certainly knows that India are at their weakest in quite some time, and the main challenge for him will be to marshal a side with limited resources into a team of winners. History though, is against him – Australia have won only once in India in the last 43 years, and that too was under a stand-in captain (Adam Gilchrist, who led instead of an injured Ponting in the 2004-05 series. Ponting came back for the final Test which was duly lost). Ricky Ponting presided over two series defeats in India, while the ever-tough Steve Waugh won everywhere in the world except for India, where his rollicking Aussie bully-boys famously faltered at the ‘final frontier’ in the most epic series of 2000-01. Having been part of the 2004-05 team, he will be looking to utilise all his experience of playing in Indian conditions, and I will not be much surprised if he manages to pull off what his two illustrious predecessors could not.
The final Australian eleven for the first Test at Chennai has already been announced as I write this, and the look of it quite bears Clarke’s hallmark. Despite all the talk of the pitch turning from the first day itself, Australia have selected the team on the basis of their strengths – which is pace bowling – thus stating that the visitors will not add a bowler just because he can spin the ball. The pace attack will comprise of the energetic Peter Siddle, the highly impressive Mitchell Starc and the equally talented James Pattinson, besides debutant all-rounder Moises Henriques. The sole front-line spinner in the team will be the off-spinner Nathan Lyon. And of course, Clarke with his left arm spin can be a wily proposition. Before India think of taking his bowling lightly, they would do well to remember that Clarke in 2004-05 took 6/9 at Mumbai on what was a deadlier version of a ‘raging turner’. Whether or not the hosts manage to tame this ‘Pup’, will be known in a month’s time. Over to the Test matches now.