Captaincy coincides with a glut of runs for Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke may have had a lot of detractors all throughout his career, but that hasn't stopped his hunger for runs.
Michael Clarke has had to deal with plenty of detractors during his international career, the critics who didn't like his brashness, his bleached hair, his penchant for fast cars or the fact he was dating a model.
The list was long, and often frivolous. He even drew a raucous boo from the crowd at the Gabba before a limited-overs match in January last year when he walked onto the field. The weight of his runs now is earning some respect. On Monday, the crowd was up for a prolonged, standing ovation.
Since being elevated to the Australian captaincy last year, Clarke has scored six centuries. And of the three he has posted in 2012, he has converted two into double-centuries and one into an unbeaten 329 - all against quality opposition.
He was 218 not out at stumps Monday on day four of the first test against top-ranked South Africa, taking his haul for 2012 to exactly 1,000 test runs - No. 1 among batsmen for the calendar year.
Making it more impressive was the fact he went to the crease with Australia in deep trouble at 40 for three late on day three in reply to South Africa's 450. He combined with opener Ed Cowan (136) in a 259-run partnership - an Australian record for the fourth wicket against South Africa - to rescue the innings and Mike Hussey (86 not out) in an unbeaten 188-run stand that propelled his team to a 37-run lead, giving them the feint chance at pulling off a win in Brisbane.
Clarke has matured since assuming the captaincy from Ricky Ponting after Australia's 2011 World Cup quarterfinal exit, and has had a remake of his public persona. He has toned down the celebrity lifestyle, the bling, he was married in a private wedding, moved house and made sure his cricket is all business.
"I'll say coincidental, I'm trying to get better every day," Clarke said Monday when asked if his surge in form surge had anything to do with the captaincy. "It's been nice to lead the way with the bat. I've said for a while now, 'It's not what you say, it's what you do.' And Ricky certainly did that as captain of Australia for a long period of time. He was scoring lots of runs and the boys followed. Hopefully I've got a few left in me."
Clarke earned the nickname "Pup" as he entered the international stage, scoring 151 on his test debut in India in October 2004. He was a youngster in one of the great cricket teams, featuring the irrepressible Shane Warne. The pair had similar interests - including fashion - and became close friends.
But Clarke was often accused of failing to make the most of his talents.
Until he smashed his career-high 329 not out against India in January, his highest test score had been 168. Since that innings, he scored 210 in the same series against India.
In all, he was averaging almost 59 in 14 tests coming into this series since replacing Ponting.
The 31-year-old Clarke said he'd trained himself to be more positive early in his innings, and not waste so many promising starts with the bat. He now has 20 centuries and is playing his 84th test, leading a team that is still in a rebuilding phase in the wake of the retirement of a half dozen stars of the game.
"One of the things Warney's taught me over the years is the better the bowling, the more positive you've got to be and that was certainly my intent from the first ball I faced yesterday," Clarke said. "That I wanted to be nice and positive and play my way, and put it back on the South African bowlers because I know they're a very good attack.
"When you're under pressure, that's when I generally when I play my best cricket."
Cowan batted with Clarke for six hours, salvaging his own fledgling test career and admiring his captain's approach to the game from close range.
"His hunger for runs never ceases to amaze me," Cowan said. "Here we are again, 200 on the back of 300, he's got such a great appetite. It's great to watch."
Clarke said he wasn't sure precisely what he'd done to improve his game and make the most of his promising starts in the test arena.
"I don't feel that much has changed. I've worked hard on my defense," he said. "Ask my dad, he's doing some batting coaching with me at the moment - he might think it's him!"
Clarke's father, Les, gave him a big hug as he walked off the field, and found himself in the middle of a live television interview. Of course, he was asked for his opinion.
In a sign of the new times, Clarke senior was understated and economical with his praise: "Not a bad effort."