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Clarke gives Australia leading edge

karthikkrishnaswamy

Posted: Jan 05, 2012 at 0023 hrs IST
      

Sydney: Three days before the first Test, a handful of Australian and Indian cricketers gathered at Queensbridge Square in Melbourne for a bit of fun and games with fans.

As the emcee introduced each one of them, the crowd cheered lustily, regardless of which team he played for. Except for one man for whom they reserved their boos.

It wasn’t a new experience for Michael Clarke. Crowds at the MCG and the Gabba had booed him during the ODI series that followed last year’s Ashes.

It isn’t hard to see why Australia didn’t love the Australian skipper. He was seen as the main mover in denying Simon Katich a central contract, and, earlier, as a party-pooper for his role in Andrew Symonds’s ouster from the squad. There was also the image issue — the urbane Clarke certainly didn’t fit the Australian archetypes of hirsute larrikin (Dennis Lillee, Merv Hughes) or grizzled gum-chewer (Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting).

A day after the Queensbridge event, during the pre-match press conference, he brushed off a question about his lack of popularity, saying it didn’t affect him at all.

How much did he actually mean it? At the end of Day Two at the SCG, a day he had batted right through to make his highest Test score — 251 not out — Clarke made an interesting statement while talking about his innings.

“Hopefully,” he said, “it helps me continue to earn respect.” Late in the day, when he went from 234 to 246 with three fours off Zaheer Khan — a neat little clip off his legs, a drive to cover’s left and another to his right — to set a new mark for the highest individual score by an Australian at the SCG, the crowd had given him full-throated acclaim. It was equal perhaps to the reception fan favourite Doug Walters must have gotten when he set the previous record of 242 against the West Indies in 1969.

By then, Clarke must have won over a lot of doubters. Already, his captaincy has been bright and positive — certainly in comparison to his opposite number in this series. Now, he had just reminded his home crowd (or those with memories short enough to forget his recent centuries at Cape Town and Brisbane) of how bright and positive his batting could be.

Watchful start

On Day One, he had attacked from the time he came to the wicket with the score a precarious 37 for three. On Wednesday morning, it took him 13 overs to find the fence, as he cautiously played out a halfway-probing early spell from Ishant Sharma, when the 6’6” paceman got the ball to straighten off a fullish length. But the introduction of Umesh Yadav freed him up.

In Umesh’s first two overs, Clarke smacked three fours. In his third, Umesh bowled wide of off stump with a 7-2 field. Clarke let two balls go, poked suspiciously at one, and danced across his crease to the next ball, still a couple of stumps wide of off, and whipped it through midwicket for four. If a stroke could ever say that a batsman would score a double hundred that day, this was it.

The boundaries came regularly after that, particularly square on the off side - often towards the Victor Trumper stand, named after a spiritual predecessor who batted with similarly twinkling feet and easy flourish — and through cover.

While moving out to drive, his front foot doesn’t thrust in one motion, but shuffles and skips forward, leading his weight beautifully into the stroke. It was with one such drive, eased to cover’s left, that brought up his hundred.

New mark

Partnership records tumbled thick and fast. First, Clarke and Ponting went past their own stand of 210 at Adelaide in 2008 to set a new mark for Australian fourth wicket stands against India. Later, they eclipsed the 239 that Ponting and Steve Waugh had added for the fifth wicket in 1999, at Adelaide once more, to bring up the highest Australian partnership for any wicket against India.

After Ponting’s dismissal, Clarke only grew more attacking, cutting and pulling Zaheer, burying any hope India had invested in the second new ball. To make matters worse, they gave him a life, Ishant Sharma dropping a sharp return catch when he was on 182.

The spinners came back, and Clarke and Hussey took full toll. The wicket of Ponting did nothing to stem the run-flow, and the third session proved to be Australia’s most productive, yielding 133 for no wicket at 4.6 runs an over. By the end of the day, Australia’s lead had swelled to 291. For Clarke, respect had been won and possibly affection too.

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