Clarke: the smiling assassin
Posted in npower Ashes Series 2009
If England fans were disappointed not to witness another Ashes triumph at Edgbaston, they saw the next best thing: a Michael Clarke hundred.
Even those with the St George’s cross tattooed on their chest cannot fail to have enjoyed watching a second century in as many Tests from Clarke, who batted for more than two sessions in making 103 not out.
At the risk of upsetting Marcus North, who played splendidly in making 96, Clarke’s will be the innings for which the final day of the third Test will be remembered.
North, along with Shane Watson and Mike Hussey before him, did his bit for the Australia cause, helping banish the prospect of a defeat which would have left England boasting an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.
But few observers - regardless of nationality - can dispute the suggestion that Clarke’s contribution was central to preserving Australia’s interest in winning the Ashes.
The bare statistics reveal he faced 192 balls in more than three hours, hit 14 fours and shared a stand of 185 with North, an Australia record for the fifth wicket against England at Edgbaston.
The scorecard, however, does not come close to revealing the beauty of Clarke’s innings.
“It’s not how you get them; it’s how many you get” is a common refrain during discussions of the game’s greatest batsmen. Clarke ticks both boxes.
The high left elbow. The checked cover drive. The immaculate on-drive. They were all given ample airing on a day which saw just three wickets fall - and only one in the final two sessions.
Clarke’s balance and poise is unsurpassed in the modern game, and he demonstrated his positive state of mind by punching James Anderson on the up through cover in the over after Hussey had fallen for 53. That lunch beckoned and the preservation of wickets was key mattered little to a batsman who refused to be cowed by the situation.
The Fred Astaire-like footwork which was so pronounced at Lord’s was kept under wraps for large parts of the day - Graeme Swann erred in length too often to draw Clarke out of his crease on a regular basis - but there were reminders, such as when as he advanced down the track to lift the spinner back over his head shortly before tea.
The off side was pierced with something approaching freedom as Clarke cruised along, there were a handful of sweetly timed clips of his pads, numerous controlled pulls and even a sweep, the rarest of treats.
He exhibited a solid defensive technique and tremendous application - an aspect of his game that is often overlooked - for much of the day, the exceptions being a pull to short midwicket which was shelled by Andrew Strauss, and an edged drive to Anderson at slip off a no-ball. Ravi Bopara was the bowler on both occasions.
That Clarke’s two greatest alarms came against a part-time medium-pacer (he will claim the delivery from Stuart Broad which kissed off stump without dislodging the bails was perfectly judged) served as a reminder of the occasional carelessness which has blighted his career, and prevents him from being regarded as one of the greats.
He has made huge strides in recent times to improve that part of his game, and has spoken during this series of feeling the need, as vice-captain, to deliver for his country when Ricky Ponting fails.
Of the 10 Test centuries Clarke had scored before arriving in England, only one had come in the second innings - against the old enemy at the WACA in the 2006-07 Ashes.
But he has now hit two second-innings hundreds in as many games, and, if the 136 he made at Lord’s came in a losing cause, we may come to regard his latest three-figure score as crucial to the outcome of the Ashes.
No-one has managed more runs than Clarke in this series - his tally stands at 352 - and among the most noticeable aspects of his time at the crease is the easy manner in which he has gone about his duty.
While his concentration was immense today, a smile was never far away from his face, and even a few verbals from England’s fielders after a bat-pad appeal was rejected failed to get a rise from Clarke.
In fact, the closest he came to getting annoyed was when two policemen could not keep still behind the bowler’s arm. Clarke’s response: a gentle shake of the head.
It was a feeling with which England were very familiar by the close of play.