Leaving the Crease – Clarke’s Second to Last Test

Australia cricket captain Michael Clarke touches his face just before reading a statement following the death of fellow cricketer Phillip Hughes during a press conference at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014. Hughes, 25, died in the hospital from a “catastrophic” injury to his head Thursday, two days after being struck by a cricket ball during a domestic first-class match. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Jobs don’t get much tougher than being a top order international batsman. If this statement causes you to hesitate, perhaps you haven’t seen one up close enough after a couple of hours on the shop floor. Haggard is the best description, nor does success make much of a difference to matters. Sustained concentration under a physical and mental examination in which injury is more than possible is the day to day experience of that tribe.

For the top order batsmen of both sides arriving at Trent Bridge for the fourth Test, even the possibility of death is tragically not a remote consideration. Hughes is a presence.

At Edgbaston, England had lost Anderson to a side-strain. Former international Derek Pringle only half joking tweets imperatively, ‘Definitely get the hosepipes off Trent Bridge now that Jimmy Anderson has been ruled out …”.

Whether the hosepipes stayed on or not, the wicket is again an exaggeration of ‘green’; promising a surface that is challenging. And it is a new laid pitch following last year’s surface getting a ‘poor’ rating from match referee Boon. This one will go up, down and sideways in staccato, each delivery mocking batsman who facing bowlers at speed rely so much on their predictive powers.

Yet again Siddle is ignored on a green seamer and, with a design to shore up the batting, Clarke is demoted in the order and a batsman with all of 15 Tests, and an average of 33, brought in to take his place at 4. Clarke is condemned and the sympathy of his team shifts towards him, as never far from the surface a memory is triggered of the time he spoke for them when they themselves could find no words.  Frustrated by the decisions being taken over their heads, they sense a fate of shared ignominy and move closer to their captain’s side.

Then, with fifteen minutes to the start of play, the toss already decided and Australia sent in to bat, there’s a sharp shower. Officials undecided about its likely strength, duration and impact are slow to summon the covers. When the covers are eventually called on and in time removed, these officials decide play must start with just a 5 minute delay, so, covering their own error.

Effectively, a damp pitch has just been watered. Already ‘febrile’ it is now totally disinhibited. One Australian puts it simply, “The wicket was ridiculous”.

And so at Trent Bridge 2:1 and two to play, became 3:1 and one to play.

The Ashes were lost. Clarke announced his retirement. Among players, respect for him became palpable.

If the cognoscenti disdain to say he was a great player, if ordinary Australians wish still to stigmatise him as unreliable, so be it. His peerless 136 in the fourth innings of the 2009 Lord’s Test remains a litmus test for opinions about Clarke: a wonderful innings of resolve and flair and greatness, scored into the memory like a precious thought, which like a co-joined twin brought forward Flintoff’s monumental last spell; or to dwell on his dismissal, filing it away as ‘another’ weak capitulation close to an interval.

What these critics do, metaphorically, is play spin from the crease. Clarke’s adventurous style, especially when breaking the mental confines of the crease to play spin, was that of the brave player. It was this bravery that sustained him when Hughes died and which supported his players through those unbearable days and nights. It would be this bravery that they, his cricketing brothers, would be determined to reflect, like moonlight reflecting sunlight, when they found themselves once more put in on another doped green’un in the fifth Test at the Oval .

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