As captain of Australia's cricket team, Michael Clarke revealed a fighting spirit and level of skill to match his greatest predecessors.
The joke goes that the most important job in Australia is not the prime minister’s but captain of the Australian cricket team. The title is held by men who, from the moment they could swing a bat, chased the honour of wearing the baggy green cap, and the country holds them aloft as beacons of leadership
Michael Clarke, Australia’s 43rd test captain, was all that. He even scored a century on his test cricket debut in 2004. It doesn’t get much better than that for a rookie.
However, he also sported fashionable haircuts, earrings and tattoos. He drove flashy cars and dated models. He wasn’t what the Australian media and cricket community were used to.
They said he didn’t fit the mould and, what’s more, they didn’t like it. Clarke was the youngest member of the Australian team when he was first capped at age 21, and his teammates christened him Pup. Within a year, he fell victim to that youth, like some extraordinary young talents do, and he was dropped from the team.
In an interview with the former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley for the INTHEBLACK magazine, Clarke tells of his journey from embarrassment to making peace with who he is and batting on to prove his critics wrong. He talks about how crucial his family was – particularly his father – to helping him assess the problems and bounce back.
He went on to be vice-captain for Ricky Ponting and was test captain for four years. He retired after a crushingly disappointing Ashes series defeat in 2015. At the time he was the fourth-highest test run scorer in Australian history, but his form had slumped in the 12 months prior. He was wrestling with nagging back and hamstring injuries, and was battling with Cricket Australia over its restructuring of the way the team was run, which in his view hampered his ability to be a true captain.
His friend and teammate Phillip Hughes died in a tragic on-field accident that brought the cricketing world to a standstill. Clarke led the team through the grief, the funeral and the first match back, but to this day it’s an event that haunts him.
Alex Malley: As I read in your autobiography, My Story, Pop Ray pulls off a fence post, turns it into a bat and refers to you as going to be “greater than [Don] Bradman”. It’s a nature versus nurture story, isn’t it?
Michael Clarke: A lot of people saw my love and passion for cricket, so they always asked me, “How pushy are your parents? Are they making you play cricket?” If anyone was pushy, it was my grandfather, Ray, who loved the game as much as I do. I always had a partner in crime to play classic catches in the pool, go to the nets; he would always be there.
Clarke didn't fit the mould
Malley: Let’s take you from the relative security and love of Liverpool [the Sydney suburb where Clarke was raised] to being thrust into the limelight very early in Adelaide in January 2003. One of your concerns was your hair …
Clarke: I remember shaving my head and it was white, so I had it dyed. I was preparing to play a game for New South Wales ... [but then it was announced] I’d been selected to play in the one-dayer for Australia.
Straight away I thought, “Oh no, I cannot play for Australia in my first game with my head looking this bad.” I remember taking the field with my cap on and I refused to take it off. When I came on to bowl, I left my cap on. Damien Martyn ran over, wished me all the best with my first ball, grabbed my cap and said, “No way are you bowling with a cap on.” I was so embarrassed.
Malley: In many ways, that was part of what caused you some grief in your career – you didn’t fit the profile of what a cricketer in Australia should be.
Clarke: It probably wasn’t exactly what the Australian public grew up with, with the older players. I was 21 so I was the youngest player in the Australian team, hence the nickname Pup. Through the years it took me a long time to acknowledge that some of the things about me were different to my idols and the people I was playing cricket for Australia with. That was a lot harder than I expected to accept.
When I finally got to a stage in my late 20s where I accepted who I was, I was proud of the way my family had brought me up, that I felt so much more comfortable with myself, my game improved. I just felt such a weight taken off my shoulders to accept that I wasn’t trying to be different, but some of the things I was doing were different.
It doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make you not value playing cricket for Australia, not have that love and passion like Allan Border, the Chappells or Dennis Lillee. I just liked different colour hair, an earring, tattoos, driving nice cars.
Malley: So, 2004, Bangalore, India, your first test, out of nowhere, really. You get to 98 and you call for the baggy green. Why?
Clarke: Because I promised my father that if I was ever lucky enough to play for Australia and then make 100, that I wanted to do it with my baggy green. To a young boy watching on television, that was more special than actually playing the game, to receive your baggy green cap. You couldn’t have given me anything more special than to represent Australia.
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Being dropped from the Australian team
Malley: When you look back, do you think success came too quickly? Do you think that made it tougher in the longer game?
Clarke: I don’t know if it came too quickly because I worked exceptionally hard to make first grade at [Sydney club] Western Suburbs, to make the NSW team, and then to make the Australian team. Once I’d had success from a very early age in the Australian team, to the time I got dropped – that 12-month period – I think my priorities changed. I started to take for granted playing cricket for Australia.
Having success at the start of my career probably made me think the game was easier than it actually is. I let myself down. As hard as it is to say, even today, the best thing that happened to me was getting dropped from that Australian test team … I was so embarrassed that I’d been dropped.
My dad having a tough conversation with me made me stop caring so much about the perception. I actually asked myself a lot of questions as to where was I letting myself down, why had I been dropped? I knew the answers. You hadn’t performed well enough for 12 months; your preparation had been sliding, all the things that got you to the Australian team had now become second and third priority instead of the most important thing in your life.
Malley: You’ve come back, you’ve scored 100 in Adelaide, you’re a different person. Of course with that difference comes sponsorships, the media, the flashy cars, the girlfriend. All of that was starting to be a tension in your career. Looking back, how might you have managed that differently, if at all?
Clarke: My number one goal was to be the best player I could be, to help the team have success, to not let go of this opportunity ever again. I still enjoyed my life, the things that come with playing sport at the highest level. I know I never allowed any of those to overtake what was most important: playing cricket for Australia.
I felt like I had to just perform; don’t say anything, just perform, perform, perform. Sooner or later, people respect you for the cricket you play and hopefully that will overtake the stuff that’s happening off the field. Did that ever happen? Who knows, probably not.
“I felt so much more comfortable with myself, my game improved.”
At best it got to an even playing field. My goal was to be the best cricketer I could be, but also be proud of who I was as a person. That’s why the car I bought, the Ferrari, that I caught a lot of criticism about buying, I had that picture on my wall as a five-year-old boy. That was my dream, to save as much money as I could to one day get that car. I bought that car, I got the tattoos on my body because they’re special to me, they mean something to me. Like I say, it took me a long time to accept and be proud of why I made the decisions I made.
Malley: Ricky Ponting [the Australian cricket captain who preceded Clarke] wrote his own book, At the Close of Play. He talked about some disappointments with you as vice-captain. You’ve gone on to write that you agree. Why didn’t you think you were a good vice-captain?
Clarke: To this day, I still feel I let Ricky down as vice-captain because I was always so scared of treading on his toes. The media and the commentary team were building up that Michael should be captain. It was spoken about too regularly and too openly, in my opinion, for me to feel comfortable to be completely honest with Ricky. Instead of me going to him with a different opinion, I would go to him and support him.
My teammates were smarter than that; they could see straight through me. They could see I didn’t agree with what Ricky was saying, or that I thought there was another way. The fact I was always agreeing was not what he needed, maybe.
Boys becoming men
Malley: When Phillip Hughes passed away so awfully at the SCG in 2014, I saw a whole lot of boys turn into men overnight. For you, it was a defining moment.
Clarke: It’s still so hard, Alex. I’ve avoided looking back since Phillip passed because it’s still so difficult to fathom. Phillip Hughes stopped the cricketing world.
Malley: [International cricket for Australia was suspended in the wake of Hughes’s death and resumed two weeks later in the first test against India, in December 2014.] You guys decided you’d play in Adelaide. Your back has never been worse, your head is all over the shop – how do you possibly muster 100 [runs] in that circumstance? I’ve seen the Google ratings – of all the test centuries, it puts that at number one. How hard was that to put together?
“Through my career, it seemed like the tougher the situation ... I’d find a way.”
Clarke: Through my career, it seemed like the tougher the situation – whether it was Dad, a break-up, Phillip – I’d find a way. It was like playing the game was no-people time. I could turn off my phone. They couldn’t write something about me because people could see where I was. It was my little sanctuary. Do what you love doing, you can breathe, you have no stress, you have no worry.
I probably shouldn’t have played that test match. I wasn’t fit physically ... but I wanted to play, I didn’t want to let my teammates down. I wanted us to take the field together out of respect. It got cricket back on the park. The team showed a lot of character; India showed a lot of respect … the game did have to go on.
Being captain in the new era
Malley: Tell me how difficult it became being the captain in the new era?
Clarke: When I took over the captaincy, the captain was in charge. The captain made decisions he thought were in the best interests of the team. Cricket is a different sport to rugby league, AFL, soccer, rugby.
Those sports go for an hour and a half. Cricket is five days on a field where the captain has to be accountable; the captain has to make the calls.
Halfway through my captaincy tenure, the structure changed. Instead of the captain having full rein on decisions … you had a coach, a high-performance manager, a chairman of selectors and a CEO. You had to go through those four people before it even got to the board, when a decision was made.
I found that most difficult. I was going to go and fight for a player, I couldn’t get that player, yet I had to be a part of telling him you’re not selected. I didn’t believe that was fair.
Malley: Now at 35, if you put posters up in your bedroom now, for what you’d like to achieve in the next 10 or 15 years, what would be on them?
Clarke: The one poster I never had up on my wall and should have right in the middle of my house is a picture of my father. He has always been my idol. And Mum. If I can be the type of parent they have been to my sister and I, that’s success to me. To be able to see your kids chase their dream, go through highs and lows, they fight their way back up.
I’d love to find a way to be more successful in business than I was as a cricketer. I’ve been fortunate through my career to have good people around me. I think that’s underrated. Also, my friends; I think it’s underrated how much they’ve helped me from such a young age. To pick me up when I’ve needed it, but also to give me a good belt when I’ve needed that. To have success, I don’t think you can do it on your own.