I’m approaching my 30th birthday, which means I’m old enough to have witnessed the complete careers of dozens of athletes.
Darren Lockyer, Braith Anasta, Andrew Johns. Jude Bolton and Chris Judd. I grew up watching these guys in their debut seasons, young, fresh-faced and full of hope. Now, I will watch their burgeoning media careers (albeit with far less interest). As always with sport, the joke is on me.
Over the years, these sporting legends waged constant battles with injury and, subsequently, their own mortality. In order to survive, each learned new skills that enabled them to keep the edge over the new wave of youngsters.
Soon, I will add Michael Clarke to the list of athletes whose professional body of work I have witnessed from start to finish*.
I remember when he exploded onto the scene, his shock of peroxided blonde hair the perfect fit in the post-Mark Taylor, post Sydney 2000-era. He became ‘best friends’ with Shane Warne, a risky venture for one who harboured dreams of captaining Australia one day, but a friendship that nonetheless was onbrand for a cheeky young kid with a Nike earring and the world at his feet.
After the initial flurry of runs, Clarke suffered a run of low scores and was dropped from the test side. His first taste of adversity. He had to fight his way back, like a gutsy politician desperately seeking pre-selection after an unlikely electoral loss. It was the recession he had to have. Cricket’s a bit like that.
There were scandals, too, including a famous choking incident with TPA favourite Simon Katich. We watched as he went through a public breakup with Lara Bingle, at one point abandoning a tour of New Zealand to literally go and break up with her. This was Clarke at his lowest, most tabloid point. Here, ‘Celebrity Clarke’ had transcended ‘Cricket Clarke’. The conservative cricket base was appalled – and rightly so.
We will never forget peak Clarke. Just as Ricky Ponting’s career wound down, Clarke’s was hotting up. This was the Michael Clarke era (2011-2012). For about a two-year period, he seemed invincible. Having taken over the captaincy from Ponting, Clarke immediately showed himself to be an innovator. His positive tactics were applauded. Most importantly, the captaincy did not affect his ability to hit runs: the ultimate test of cricketing manhood.
But the honeymoon would not last. After a spate of injuries, Clarke had a significant fall out with the Australian selectors, who were pushing him to overcome his fitness issues; setting aggressive KPIs for him to meet in order to make the World Cup. Here, we saw Clarke the outspoken, anti-establishment man. Clarke, the individual.
Around this same time, we saw a more human side of Clarke, in the aftermath of the Phillip Hughes tragedy. Beleaguered Clarke. A Clarke who realised, perhaps for the first time in his life, that cricket isn’t everything. A statesman in a time of crisis. Like Keating’s Redfern speech in 1992, Clarke rolled up his sleeves and spoke from the heart. Unfiltered Clarke. We liked this Clarke.
* * *
Today, we are firmly in the ‘information age’. We have access to past interviews and YouTube clips from years ago, so we can directly compare and contrast these athletes with their former selves.
In the old days, someone like Allan Border was able to captain Australia into his late 30s. There was less media scrutiny back then and the international calendar wasn’t so jam-packed. Border was able to insulate himself from the scrutiny.
No such luck for Clarke. Like a good corporate leader, he must face the media constantly. He would have dozens of contractual agreements in place, where he must show up and perform leadership duties. Everyday, despite his own physical and form-related decline, he must front the media and act as the face of Australian cricket.
Being the Australian captain is essentially the same as being CEO of a listed company, except you’re holding a ‘shareholder meeting’ at least once a week – and during every single day of a test match. The Australian public are extremely vocal shareholders. They go to every meeting and they’ll be asking questions at the end, don’t you worry. Mum and Dad investors don’t like being taken for a ride.
CEOs are at their peak in their mid-40s and early 50s. In 2011, Clarke was in his late 20s – the cricket equivalent of being middle-aged in the corporate world – but in a few short years, he’s suddenly overstayed his welcome. There’s a reason why CEOs get paid the big bucks – they burn out quick.
And Clarke looks old and weary, all of a sudden. He’s not the fresh-faced youngster of 2004. Sure, he still looks good in magazines with the benefit of Photoshop to iron out his creases, but look at his face closely and you’ll see a grizzled man. Look at his tired eyes. He’s now approaching his mid 30s, which in cricket terms, is like working past the pension age of 65.
It’s sad to acknowledge athlete mortality. They seem so virile, so full of boundless youthful energy when they break onto the scene. When they depart, they generally do so having been on borrowed time for a year or two.
Mentally speaking, cricket is the most challenging of all sports. Anyone – with the exception of Shane Warne, a true outlier in every sense of the world – would feel the mental and physical strain of the international cricket schedule. Clarke has seen more highs and lows than most. He lacks Warne’s enviable ability to shake off all controversy and just play cricket. The many battles – both on- and off-field – have taken their toll.
Clarke is not like Roger Federer, who is thriving in his drawn out ‘late years’. Since 2011, many have written Federer off, but he’s proved everyone wrong – he’s still a genuine championship threat. In fact, watching Federer during this phrase of his career is perhaps more enjoyable than witnessing peak Federer. His mastery of craft shines through now, more than ever before.
Clarke does not give the impression he will thrive in his ‘late years’, as Federer has done. Because Clarke is the true embodiment of Generation Y; no gradual decline, all immediacy, as my TPA colleague Sam Perry describes it. He has rapidly joined the pantheon of Australian captains who look really old, but still play. It has been a truly jolting decline.
Like when little Johnny finds out he’s been accepted to college 5,000 miles away, we – as proud parents – cannot help but feel sad to see him go. We’ve seen him grow up; we’ve raised him to be the man he is today. But Clarke must commence the next chapter of his life, whatever that means. And we’ll be waving goodbye from the porch, toasting to many happy memories, perhaps even shedding a tear.
Thanks for the memories, Michael**.
By Dave Edwards
* I write this article despite hoping that he hits a double ton in the fourth test and wins the Ashes for Australia
** You’re not ‘Pup’ any more – you’re a man in your mid-30s and, quite frankly, you should have transitioned away from this infantile nickname years ago when you had the chance.