SYDNEY: Australia captain Michael Clarke limped off the Adelaide Oval to a rousing ovation on Tuesday after scoring 117 against Sri Lanka in his final innings of a long Australian summer.
His innings was destined to be in a losing cause and his hamstring injury could yet jeopardise his participation in the tour of the West Indies, but a sometimes spectacular century was a fitting end to his first year as Australian captain.
Since the start of 2011, when he was jeered by sections of local crowds as the country digested the humiliation of a home Ashes defeat, Clarke has been transformed both on and off the pitch.
Long heir apparent to his friend and mentor Ricky Ponting, he assumed the captaincy on the eve of his 30th birthday after Australia’s quarter-final exit from the 50-overs World Cup.
Taking over the job with Australian cricket at its lowest ebb since the mid-1980s, the boos made it clear that Clarke was not a universally popular choice.
“Over time, the public has identified in cricket players images of Australian-ness that they’ve admired,” said Daniel Smith of Perth-based public relations firm Campaign Capital.
“They’ve enjoyed the caricatures of the ocker Australian. From Ian Chappell through Allan Border, David Boon, Doug Walters and down to Steve Waugh. No-nonsense cricketers, aggressive on and off the field, lads off the field.
“Michael Clarke wasn’t part of that. He was flash, he was slick, he was well-groomed. He pursued other interests and traditional cricket fans found Michael Clarke confronting.
“They didn’t understand Twitter, they didn’t understand the tattoos, the hair and the sports cars. They found that challenging.”
This year, Clarke has led Australia to a 1-0 test series win in Sri Lanka, 1-1 draws in series with South Africa and New Zealand before the 4-0 sweep of a poor India around the turn of the year.
It is the revival of his own batting fortunes after a miserable Ashes series, however, that has done the most to turn around public opinion.
Clarke has scored seven international centuries since he became captain, highlighted by his brilliant 329 not out against India in the second test at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
His response to achieving the 14th highest score in the long history of test cricket was instructive of his approach to being his country’s 43rd test skipper.
“It puts this team in another good position to win another test match,” he said.
“It’s fantastic to have a score like I do, but if you don’t win the test match it means nothing.”
Where once he famously fell foul of opener Simon Katich for wanting to leave a post-match celebration early to meet his model girlfriend, Clarke is now consumed by the team ethic.
It has not just been his bat or his captaincy doing the talking, however, and Smith is convinced Australians have been subjected to a rebranding of the cricketer.
“The turnaround in a year has been phenomenal,” he said.
“It’s been pretty shameless but it was very effective in trying to turnaround pretty much everything he did.
“He decided not to play Twenty20, which showed he was committed to more traditional forms of the game. All of the advertising is not just about endorsing products, it’s about messaging for himself as well.”
The tattoos remain but the glamorous apartment in the beach side Sydney suburb of Bondi has been traded for a mansion in the city’s Sutherland shire, a more “acceptable” home for an Australian with working class roots.
His Twitter page (twitter.com/MClarke23) is full of messages for fans and self-deprecating comments, including a tip that team mate Michael Hussey would be named Australia’s Player of the Year.
The Allan Border Medal was always going to Clarke for a third time, of course, and Smith concedes the rebranding would have been to no avail had he not produced the goods on the pitch.
“None of this would have been successful if he had not been scoring runs,” he said. “But there’s also been this extraordinary effort and I’m sure Cricket Australia and not just his management are part of it.”
Clarke has also shown a ruthless streak this year, best illustrated when he voted as a member of the selection panel to bring an end to Ponting’s one-day international career last month.
While he has been fullsome in his praise of his team when they have “executed their skills” well, as in the India series, he has been publicly scathing of sloppiness.
Mickey Arthur, who took over as Australia coach last November, said Clarke was first and foremost a “fantastic leader” with an “aura” about him.
Fifth in the world in tests when he took over, Australia are now ranked fourth but the stated goal for Clarke has always been to put his country back on top.
As with all Australian captains, full judgement will be reserved until he has contested an Ashes series in 2013 but, if nothing else, a sometimes unforgiving media has at least stopped listing the candidates they would prefer as captain.