MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Michael Clarke’s inspired century at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Thursday ticked off another milestone for Australia’s high-flying captain, but was also a stunning riposte to critics who had suggested he should never have been selected.
Having sustained a hamstring injury in the first test in Hobart, Clarke was given until the last minute to prove his fitness and only announced himself ready to take on Sri Lanka on the morning of the second test.
Meanwhile, young seamer Mitchell Starc, 100 percent fit and champing at the bit, was rested despite a five-wicket haul that helped drive the hosts to victory in Hobart.
Pundits and former players cried double-standards. Clarke, a selector himself, simply put his head down to score 106 and surpass Ricky Ponting as his country’s most prolific test run-scorer in a calendar year.
The four-hour innings of 14 boundaries, while not without chances, broke the hearts of Sri Lanka and helped drive Australia to a mammoth first innings lead of 284.
“In regards to beating Ricky, in my eyes he was certainly the greatest batsman I was lucky enough to play with so to beat any record that Ricky holds is very special that’s for sure,” the 31-year-old Clarke told reporters after notching his fifth ton for the year.
”Numbers have never really bothered me too much. It’s nice to be making runs and leading by example as one of the leaders in the team and the captain of the team, I think it’s really important that the captain is doing that.
“But to me it’s about winning games. If I am helping this team have success then I feel like that’s part of my job … As long as we keep winning that’s my priority.”
Clarke’s 22nd test century made him fourth on the all-time list with 1,595 runs for the year but he is unlikely to get another chance to reel in Mohammad Yousuf (1,788), Viv Richards (1,710) or Graeme Smith (1,656) this year.
Australia may not need a second innings to wrap up the test and the take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series, so Clarke was disappointed not to have made more runs after being dismissed slashing an edge to the slips.
That also broke his perfect record in 2012 of going on to make double-tons after passing 100.
“I thought it was a poor shot, especially at that time, we’d just seen off the second new ball so it was probably the best time to bat and again it shows for the next couple of guys that we lost three wickets quite quickly together,” added Clarke, who became the first man to hit four double-centuries in a calendar year in 2012.
“I guess with regards to my form it’s about - enjoy this time and make the most of it because there’ll come a time where you nick the first few and get a couple of ducks.”
Clarke, backed up admirably by the evergreen Mike Hussey in recent tests, brought Shane Watson into his orbit on day two, with the bulky all-rounder composing 83 in a welcome return to form.
The pair put on a record fourth-wicket partnership of 194 against their opponents at the MCG but Watson was left to rue another missed opportunity to post a century.
Watson has only converted two of his 19 half-centuries into tons, his last a 126 against India in Mohali more than two years ago.
The statistics have dogged Watson, who has been dismissed in the 90s four times and was out caught with an ill-timed hook shot, but Clarke dismissed queries about his vice captain’s mental fortitude.
”As his captain I‘m not disappointed with his shot selection because he pulls and hooks as good as anybody in our team,“ he said. ”Nine times out of ten that will generally go for four or six. Unfortunately, today it went straight to the fielder.
“If he continues to play the way he did today and show that patience and discipline, I have no doubt he’ll score plenty of hundreds for Australia.”
(The story corrects Australia lead total)
Editing by John O'Brien