Clarke leads from front in Ashes challenge
LONDON (Reuters) - Since celebrating his test debut with a dazzling century, Michael Clarke has combined the brash self-confidence of his native Sydney with a purity of style allied to fluent footwork in the finest Australian tradition.
Last year the Australia captain added a Bradmanesque appetite for test runs, accumulating 1,595 at an average of exactly 106, including three double centuries and a triple. He was selected as the leading international cricketer for 2012 by the Wisden almanack.
Clarke's blend of elegance and acquisition led former Australian off-spinner Ashley Mallett to suggest that the right-hander was now an amalgam of Victor Trumper and Don Bradman, who also forged their reputations in Sydney.
"He possesses the majesty of Trumper...and much of the efficiency of Bradman, who collected runs like a frequent flyer clocks miles," enthused Mallett.
A modern and more relevant parallel could be drawn with Allan Border, another Sydneysider who was the initially reluctant captain of a side who lost series against West Indies, England, Pakistan and New Zealand.
Like Clarke, Border stood figuratively head-and-shoulders above his team mates as a batsman; tough, pragmatic and at his best in the perennial crises afflicting his team.
In tandem with coach Bobby Simpson, Border instilled his own gritty work ethic into an under-performing side, weeded out the players he did not want and backed those he thought possessed the right stuff.
Australia won the World Cup in India in 1987 and two years later Border's men defeated England 4-0 in a six-match series. England did not regain the Ashes until 2005.
Can Clarke emulate Border? After losing three Ashes series out of the last four, Australia's run-up to Wednesday's first test at Trent Bridge could hardly have been less promising.
Clarke presided over the first three losses during this year's 4-0 whitewash in India, before returning home with a recurrence of the degenerative back problem which has troubled him since he was a teenager.
He missed his team's unsuccessful Champions Trophy campaign in England last month and was in London receiving treatment when David Warner threw a punch at England batsman Joe Root in a Birmingham bar. The batsmen stayed on tour but received a suspension until the first test.
Coach Mickey Arthur, who suspended four players in India after a breakdown in discipline, was then sacked 16 days before the start of the Ashes campaign and Clarke resigned his post as a national selector.
"We have no excuses," said Clarke. "The Australian public and us as players want to have success.
"We know what the expectations and standards are off the field as well in regards to behaviour, and we have no excuses for not upholding those values. We've been very disappointed with our performances so far on this tour and we have to turn that around."
Clarke is by instinct an imaginative, attacking captain, who has won praise from Ian Chappell, one of Australia's best leaders.
"His entertaining approach is based on one premise, trying to win the match from the opening delivery," Chappell said.
"This should be the aim of all international captains, but sadly it isn't."
Following his feats last year Clarke averages 66.10 as a captain, placing him fourth in an all-time list of players who have led their country at least 10 times headed, inevitably, by Bradman with 101.51.
Since he took over from Ricky Ponting for the fifth test against England in Sydney in 2011, Australia have won half their 24 tests, lost seven and drawn five.
Yet Clarke has never been a popular sporting hero at home in the fashion of Border, Chappell and Steve Waugh. The day he took over as Australia's 43rd captain, a poll in Sydney gave him a 15 percent approval rating.
"It may be his self-conscious metrosexual airs and graces," wrote the Australian cricket journalist and historian Gideon Haigh at the time of Clarke's appointment.
"It may be his habit of appearing on billboards advertising this, that and himself. It may be the tattoos, of which Clarke has 10, including one on his right shoulder that celebrates his bikini-model ex Lara Bingle. But this I know, to sum it up, they do not like him."
Tattoos and billboards hardly make Clarke a rarity in the modern sporting world and he has since demonstrated conclusively that, whatever his image might be, he is clearly as devoted to the cause of Australian cricket and the business of making runs as any of his predecessors.
"For me the reason I sit where I am today is because of hard work," he said. "Preparation and hard work are the only two answers for me to be representing Australia, and that's something that I will continue to push with the young Aussie boys who haven't played too much cricket around us."
On his return to Australian colours, Clarke looked in excellent fettle against Worcestershire, the county against whom Bradman customarily opened his England tours with a double century.
Clarke was run out for 62 in the first innings then stroked 124 from 98 balls in the second. After an encouraging performance by Australia in the first four-day match against Somerset and with the sun finally shining, Clarke was finally able to show some optimism about his team's prospects.
"There's no doubt the boys have handled what's happened over the past month as well as they possibly could, I think our momentum is slowly building," he said.
"There are a lot of positives to take out of both games. We're just about ready to play this first test."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)
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