In sport, the journey from youth to manhood, from promise to fulfilment, can take an awfully long time. Some never make it. For most, a fragile outer shell of confidence protects a softer centre. Even the brashest and most assured possess a nagging kernel of self-doubt: will the years of practice, of training, of graft, of dreaming even, be reduced to nothing when the moment comes?
For Michael Clarke, a young New South Welshman with streaked-blond hair and the now-ubiquitous earring, the moment came on a hazy afternoon in Bangalore with his team tottering on 149 for four. An old blade, Darren Lehmann, had betrayed his nerves the ball before and departed to a dreadful slog. Two of the greatest spinners of the day, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, were bowling in tandem and four fielders hovered around the bat like vultures over a rotting carcass.
Walking out to bat, it is unlikely that he was thinking of the hours spent on the bowling machine with his father, Les, or the hours spent in the nets of the Western Suburbs Oval, the club side in Sydney where he learnt his cricket. It is unlikely that he was thinking of the first-class cricket for New South Wales that toughened him up, or even the finishing gloss applied by those nice people at Hampshire. But it was all there, part of the package.
Most importantly for him, his family were there. As soon as he knew that he had been given the nod over Brad Hodge he flew his parents and grandparents over, so that there was a very visual reminder of his solid roots in Liverpool, a working-class suburb a dozen miles west of Sydney. It is similar territory – hard-edged but honest – to the one from which the Waugh twins emerged, and it was the No 6 berth so long held down by the elder Waugh that Clarke was now looking to make his own.
What was he thinking as he walked out to join Simon Katich? Probably, he was trying to blank out as much as possible and retreat into what professional sportsmen like to call ‘the zone’. Maybe, secretly, he was asking his maker to give him that first run. The noise, the kind of noise that only cricket in India can produce, will have added to his confusion. There were nerves – afterwards he admitted that he woke up at 5.30 in the morning and that he didn’t settle down until five overs into his innings – but they were hidden beneath a newly minted baggy green cap, presented to him by Shane Warne, and a cocky stride to the crease.
Expectation is one of the hardest things for a sportsman to cope with. Think of what it did to Graeme Hick. In many ways, Clarke is the Hick of Australian cricket. His eventual selection for Australia has long been regarded as inevitable, but it had been delayed by a combination of a winning, and therefore unchanged, team and a temporary loss of form. A year ago, Clarke signed a deal with Slazenger worth $1.25 million (about £500,000) over four years, reputed to be the biggest kit sponsorship in Australia. And this before he had played a Test match.
He was promoted on the back of a moderate 12 months, which further emphasised the fact that he is the anointed one of Australian cricket. Hampshire received unexceptional returns on their investment. His first-class average is under 40, modest when you think of the likes of Stuart Law and Mike Hussey, who have career averages of over 50 and have largely been ignored. Clearly, the selectors saw gifts beyond the black and white figures. Clarke, himself, took public speaking lessons to prepare for what was to come. The expectation, then, came from within as well as from others.
Unlike Hick, Clarke did not freeze on his debut. He was neatly into his stride, shimmying down the wicket to clip Anil Kumble through the on side. Crisp footwork, fast hands, allied to a touch of unorthodoxy sums up his play: a hint of Michael Slater. He also has an eye for the moment: as India wilted towards the end of the first day he pressed on, adding 60 in the last ten overs with Adam Gilchrist, tilting Australia’s way what had been a hard-fought first day.
Only in the nineties, where he hovered for 45 minutes on the second morning, did his youth betray him. Suddenly, it was as if his feet were stuck in glue and his hands made of stone. He was perilously close to being lbw to Kumble. The crowd, though, were with him for his emotions were plain to see: a glance or two to the heavens, and his parents, a frustrated swish with his bat, scowling then grinning, nervously.
On 98, as fast bowler Zaheer Khan marked out his run, Clarke suddenly turned to the pavilion and called for his baggy green cap to replace his helmet. The trick worked and Khan served up a leg-stump half-volley. Clarke clipped it for two then ran, jumped for joy, thrashed his arms wildly, cried a little and proceeded to kiss everything in sight – his badge, cap and bat – so that we half expected him to plant a smacker on Khan to thank him for his generosity.
After that, his dazzling stroke-play returned and he carved up a tiring Indian attack. By the time he edged Khan to the wicket-keeper for 151 the journey he began as a small boy in the suburbs of West Sydney was complete. It was a glorious debut.