Michael Clarke is a shadow of the batsman he once was. The lazy elegance, supple wrists and swift feet are no more. The blond streaks and baby face have given way to a gruffer, more rugged look but his batting was mostly a reflection of a childlike vitality; the arrogance of youth, albeit with a touch of steel to it. It was not always so. Although he had style in abundance, it was the substance that people felt he was lacking. Not many thought him capable of scoring Steve Waugh-style crisis runs: runs that stick out like a prickly bastard, all substance, almost no style- yet he did!
In Cape Town, March 2014, with the series in the balance, Clarke withstood a Morne Morkel barrage, grinding out the grittiest 161 in recent memory. That didn’t just have the stamp of Steve Waugh on it; it had shades of Muhammad Ali against George Foreman. If, at Bangalore, his batting had hollered across the cricket world like Ali’s obliteration of Sonny Liston, Cape Town was his Rumble in the Jungle, Morkel his Foreman. Mark Nicholas once remarked that you can superimpose Mark Waugh on him; during the course of that innings you could superimpose both Steve Waugh and Muhammad Ali on him.
Norman Mailer compared Ali to 'God's big toe', for lack of any mortal equivalent to what he had witnessed. It is thus with a degree of trepidation that I bestow the same significance on Clarke's battling century and a half. It is without doubt that what Ali did in Kinshasa has had a deeper impact on society and culture. His calculated approach gave greater voice to an Africa and Africans waking from their colonial past and other forms of suppression. In the era during and after the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, Ali was a source of strength and pride for the Black American. In fact, for Africans the world over, he was one of their own, the mouth of millions of oppressed voices. His vocal criticism of the Vietnam War cut across divides, bringing with it equal measures of consternation and approval. In the shifting dynamics of American society and beyond, Ali had carved out a uniquely popular place for himself. In this regard, Michael Clarke does not compare. He never will.
Among cricketers, perhaps only Frank Worrell and Viv Richards have come close to galvanising whole populations on a similarly grand scale. But from a purely sporting perspective, Clarke, his brittle back and broken arm in tow, displayed a resilience which is not commonplace in modern cricket.
Against Foreman, a severe man with an intimidating record, Ali defied convention, leaning against the ropes, allowing a frothing brute to swing wildly. Ali could of course 'float like a butterfly' and 'sting like a bee' but instead he took stock of the circumstance, tiring his much younger opponent into submission. When Ali did seize his chance, he did so with a flurry of punches, setting Foreman up for a right hook delivered by 'God's big fist' himself. It was hailed as the 'Ali Rope-a-Dope' and was to be the apotheosis of His Greatness. In cricket, a batsman is best advised to avoid getting hit, but it is not always possible.
In Cape Town, Clarke was not in his prime, slowed down by an assortment of injuries and advancing years. He was the tired leader of a tired team caught in the midst of a most hostile spell. But, like Ali, he too was driven by the occasion, consumed by the need to embellish himself as the great he always wanted to be.
Morne Morkel might not evoke the same dangers George Foreman did, but with ball in hand he is capable of dishing out quite a savage beating. When Clarke got struck on the exposed shoulder, the same fears that Norman Mailer had of Ali's fate seemed to reappear in my mind. It was, after all, not a premeditated act as Ali's had been. It did not stop there. Morkel hit him on the arm; in fact he broke Clarke’s arm. To be brutally honest, I was sure Morkel would swallow him whole and spit him out like a bit of gum; let this tepid Aussie roast under the baking South African sun, his demeanour had suggested.
It took Ali eight rounds to sense an opening. It took a feral Curtly Ambrose and an ugly confrontation to establish the doggedness of Steve Waugh. Clarke did his eight rounds. He faced his own Foreman and Ambrose combined in Morne Morkel, before he began to uncoil. The feet were nimble again, the wrists supple and the timing sweet. Ali destroyed Foreman in a flurry of electric punches, his every movement a celebration of the freedom that he had so patiently waited for. Clarke did so by the sheer grace of his batsmanship. It was a pleasant coincidence that I refreshed my memory of that innings to the tune of Eunadi's 'Divineire'. The sense of upliftment was evident in the symphony; it was evident in his stroke making. The Michael Clarke Rope-a-Dope was no more a fiction, but a wonderful reality.
It is only right that he leaves now. The lights have been dimming steadily, and now they barely flicker. One gets the impression that he has fought one fight too many. If it took a defeat against Leon Spinks to herald the decline in Ali's prowess, the man himself required some convincing. Against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, Ali, chubbier and slower, finally came to terms with the loss of his invincibility. Clarke has been similarly steadfast in his refusal to call it a day. Even a summer of cement-footed batting could not convince him to reconsider his stance. It was Stuart Broad, his old nemesis, and the overall plight of his team at Trent Bridge that punctured his defiance.
He is no more the fluent batsman of yore. He has shown no sign of the grit to scrap it out like he did in Cape Town. His captaincy too has lacked the spark which was typical of his style. If one observes him as intensely, as some do, what will immediately come to focus are his eyes. Once bright and sparkling, they now appear distant and hollow. I treat this as a sign of resignation; I have seen it in defeated men. I see it in the Ali struggling with age and Parkinson’s, and I see the same in Clarke.
It is in the nature of sport that many of its finest practitioners end their careers not with a bang but a whimper. Even so: Ali in Kinshasa and Clarke in Cape Town are seared in my consciousness, easy recall both of them especially when the same men will soon recede into the public unconsciousness.
Lawdy, Lawdy, They're Great.