Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 18 News List

New Aussie Test skipper Clarke polarizes opinion

AFP, SYDNEY

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, left, shares a joke with Australia captain Michael Clarke as she welcomes him to an afternoon tea for the Australia and England Ashes team members she hosted at her Sydney residence, Kirribilli House, yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

Australia’s new Test captain Michael Clarke casts a genial and polite image, yet he polarizes opinion among the country’s cricket followers.

Clarke, 29, has stepped into the hot seat, replacing injured skipper Ricky Ponting for tomorrow’s final Ashes Test against England at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The Ashes are gone, but Australia have the motivation of drawing the series with England if they can regroup after their massive loss in the fourth Test in Melbourne and win in Sydney.

Clarke now has the responsibility of partly restoring Australia’s battered prestige if he can raise the troops for one last big effort to deprive Andrew Strauss’ team of the series victory they have richly deserved, but Clarke, known as “Pup” from his early days in Tests, generates animosity and praise within the Australian cricket community and it is not always obvious why.

On the day Clarke was announced as captain this week, a newspaper poll showed only 8 percent of respondents favored the appointment.

In another newspaper poll before the series, 74 percent said they did not want vice captain Clarke to become Australia’s next Test captain.

“I think it’s part and parcel of what we do now,” Clarke said.

“As a professional cricketer these days you spend a lot of the time in the media. I’ve copped a lot of criticism throughout my whole career, it’s no different now,” he said.

The reasons for the animosity are not clear. He is a clean when it comes to off-field behavior, and has been courteous and straightforward in his dealings with the media.

Clarke said recently in a magazine article: “You wish everybody liked you, but not everyone’s going to.”

“I don’t know and will never find out what it is that made people criticize me,” he said. “I only have to stay true to myself and true to how my parents brought me up. I know I’m not trying to be anyone other than myself.”

Clarke may be paying for his perceived glamorous lifestyle and his previous high-profile relationship with bikini model Lara Bingle.

He left a tour of New Zealand early last year to settle a very public break-up with Bingle, which generated front page headlines at the time.

After putting his affairs in order, Clarke returned to New Zealand and made his highest Test score of 168 in the first Test in Wellington.

There was also an incident following Australia’s win over South Africa three years ago in Sydney when he passed on his duty as vice captain of leading the team song so he could go on a date with Bingle.

That led to a confrontation with teammate Simon Katich, who reportedly grabbed Clarke by the throat, before teammates pulled them apart and Clarke stormed off.

Brad Haddin, vice captain for the coming Test in Sydney, believes Clarke will cope with the extra scrutiny.

“The reaction from the public changes week to week — you are one good innings away or sometimes one good cover drive away from the support being with you,” Haddin said. “You just have to present yourself and do all the work you possibly can to be the best cricketer you possibly can. Michael is a very strong character, so things will be OK.”

Clarke has also struggled in this Ashes series at No. 4 in the batting order with 148 runs in seven innings for an average of 21.14.

Cricket Australia takes little heed of the newspaper polls, saying its own research shows Clarke is enormously popular and has become an important marketing tool for a sport struggling to retain interest among young people.

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