Michael Clarke and the team: what Ponting and Michael Hussey say in their books

Gideon Haigh in The Australian, 19/20 October 2013 — where the title is “Clarke lbw to Ponting and Hussey as captaincy is put to literary test

NOTHING in football hurts as much as the truth, says Tony Cascarino in his memoir Full Time: “It is like being caught off side.” The truth hurts in cricket, too, but it is perhaps a bit more like being given out lbw — a matter of interpretation, an invitation of disagreement. It has been an unhappy few weeks for Michael Clarke, adjudged leg-before by the autobiographies of two players who a year ago were his staunchest liegemen, Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey.

michael-clarkeAs cherry-picked extracts have emphasised, Ponting’s At the Close of Play reveals doubts he entertained about Clarke’s attitude to team responsibilities when he was a player, while Hussey’s Underneath the Southern Cross presents a bleak view of a selfish Australian team culture under Clarke’s captaincy. And while Ponting subsequently comes down on the side of the view of Clarke that “captaincy was the making of him”, Hussey airs misgivings from the very beginning, when Clarke acted as locum for Ponting in the West Indies in July 2008. Hussey recounts how old friends Clarke and Andrew Symonds were estranged during the ODI series in question by the former’s decision to fine the latter for missing a team bus: “From that moment, they were never the same. If Pup was up one end of the dressing room, Simmo was up the other.” These opposite ends reflected their careers’ “opposite directions”, Hussey recounts: “While Simmo was drifting away from international cricket, Pup was being groomed as the next Australian captain.” The former evidently had a good deal to do with the latter.

michael-clarke-hairstyles1To repeat, though, “truth” is complex. How deep were issues around Pup’s personality? Ponting’s views suggest a keen understanding of Clarke’s “type”, as it were. The emerging Clarke reminded Ponting of another unnamed teammate who would be “chirpy and bubbly if he was going well, but appear a bit grim if things weren’t working for him” – and, frankly, I would be surprised if Ponting had only met one player like this before Clarke. “The best teammates are the ones who can keep their moods in check for the sake of the group,” Ponting concludes, and he is surely right, but it does not come naturally to everyone in a team game that nonetheless overtly celebrates and explicitly quantifies individual achievement. And you might say that the best dressing rooms are those that allow for that. Hussey’s allegations about “insularity” are personally qualified too. “As a captain,” he notes, “Pup was a very strong driver and had a clear path that he wanted to take the team on. You were either on it or you were off it.” And Hussey was very much on it: he had “no qualms” about such an approach, and ended up playing “some of my best cricket under Pup’s captaincy”. As he says: “I don’t know quite what the chemistry was but it worked, and in the end that’s what matters.”

So whatever Hussey’s misgivings about the environment, it was one in which he thrived. Dressing rooms, then, are important places, but also, I suspect, places we are apt to mythologise because they are invested with an aura of cultishness and secrecy, which leads us to overestimate what little we learn about events in them. The books of Ponting and Hussey are instructive in this respect too.

Both provide accounts of the one Australian dressing room story of the last decade that everyone knows: the contretemps between Clarke and Simon Katich in January 2010, whose details require no elaboration. What’s interesting is that neither places great weight on the incident itself. Ponting says he saw “worse arguments” between Australian players – indeed, he confesses to have been involved in one himself. Of Clarke’s prompt exit, Ponting records: “Michael left immediately after the confrontation, while we just shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘That’s Pup’.” In reference to Katich’s hasty apology, Hussey quotes the droll response of Test debutant Andrew McDonald: “Don’t worry, mate, this happens all the time in Victoria.” What caused “massive repurcussions”, Hussey notes, was not the incident but its disclosure a month later. Hints of friction and disharmony haunt sporting teams as they do political parties even, and perhaps sometimes especially, when they are exaggerated. So what can we conclude about Australian cricket’s travails from the accounts of these two great players?

A key event in the souring of dressing room mood involved neither Clarke, nor Lara Bingle, nor when the team song was sung, nor who went sailing with James Packer, nor whether Watto knows the words to True Blue, or any of the other intramural factors people so enjoy speculating about. Instead it was the old-fashioned matter of a player being dropped – the cutting of Katich from the list of Cricket Australia contracted players in June 2011. Ponting calls this “as dumb a non-selection as any during my time with the Australian team”, putting everyone “on notice”. Hussey blames it for entrenching “the culture of looking after number one”.

This decision was compounded a few months later, Hussey continues, by CA’s acceptance of a recommendation in the Argus Review that the Australian captain and coach form part of the national selection panel, which he says caused uneasy players additional angst. As the new captain, argues Hussey, Clarke was invidiously placed: “I noticed, during that period, that when Michael was around, everyone went a bit quieter, and kept their head down. It’s not a comfortable feeling; people aren’t being themselves. “Overall, I just felt that it drove a wedge between the players and their leader.”

Except that who was perhaps the most spirited voice in the argument for Clarke having these powers? None other than Ponting, who describes responding unambiguously to the question from Don Argus about accountability for the Australian team’s performances: “Until the captain becomes a selector, he can never be truly accountable for what happens in his team.” In the end, principle and practice could be reconciled for only 18 months.

Clarke handed back his selectorial responsibilities in England. And when it comes time to writing the master narrative of this period in Australian cricket, this is something we will have to come to terms with: that perspectives vary, that men of goodwill will differ, that “truth” is elusive. Another view is on its way down the pike even now: Michael Clarke’s The Ashes Diary, will be published in three weeks. Not that we should expect too much candour from an incumbent Australian captain. He’ll be less concerned about lbws than not hitting his own wicket. – See more at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/opinion/clarke-lbw-to-ponting-and-hussey-as-captaincy-is-put-to-literary-test/story-fnb58rpk-1226742755844#sthash.UyJP4JoC.dpuf

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