Even at his peak, Michael Clarke wasn’t winning any popularity contests back home. Viewed as self-centred bordering on the selfish, it is unlikely that the former Australian skipper’s latest remarks which stopped just short of questioning the commitment of his colleagues would have gained him any friends, home or away.
Current Test captain Tim Paine reacted with measured affront to Clarke’s comments that Australia’s players were ‘too scared to sledge (Virat) Kohli or sledge the Indian players because they had to go and play with them in April’ during India’s history-making Test series triumph Down Under in 2018-19. Clarke went on to add that the charm of lucrative Indian Premier League contracts had led to his compatriots becoming ‘a lot softer or not as hard as what we're accustomed to seeing’.
Paine, who had his fair share of run-ins with Kohli once Australia had been defeated in the opening Test of the four-match series in Adelaide in December 2018 and promptly shed their then recent nice-boy image, countered his predecessor’s barbs by telling Cricinfo, “I certainly didn't notice too many people being that nice to Virat or not trying to get him out or anything like that. I'm not sure who was going easy on him; we certainly had a thing where we didn't want to provoke any fight with him because we think that's when he plays at his best.”
The timing of Clarke’s contentious statements is interesting. There is a massive question mark on whether, let alone when, Season 13 of the IPL will get underway, given the virtual global lockdown following the widespread damage wrecked by COVID-19. Clarke, aka Pup, has been a regular in the commentary box for the IPL, and a commentator/guest in TV studios for international matches involving India. Given the fluidity of the situation as it exists, Clarke probably felt he had nothing to lose by espousing a contrarian and controversial view that was bound to stir up a hornet’s nest.
While it is beyond doubt that the IPL, with its resultant inter-mingling of dressing-room cultures and therefore a greater sense of understanding and empathy, has taken some of the ‘edge’ off cricketing unpleasantness, it is far-fetched to believe that the temptation of big bucks can take such deep root that it ends up altering the fundamental behaviour of professional sportspersons in the heat of battle. Or, are we to assume that Clarke is speaking from personal experience?
Perhaps, it temporarily escaped Clarke’s attention that the said series against India was Australia’s first at home since the infamous ‘Sandpapergate’ episode of March 2018, and that a disillusioned Australian fan-base that felt let down by the events in Cape Town would be watching not just their cricket but also their conduct with an ultra-critical eye. In the aftermath of the Newlands fiasco, Cricket Australia moved swiftly, swayed by growing public discontent that was led by the country’s Prime Minister, to ban Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft from international cricket for between nine and 12 months for their complicity in the ball-tampering embarrassment. An internal review concluded, among other things, that there was a need to establish a ‘renewed behavioural charter’, something that hadn’t thrilled Clarke who felt that Australia had become too soft and that they wouldn’t ‘win s**t by worrying about being liked’.
It’s an interesting coincidence that English umpire Ian Gould, who retired from officiating after the 2019 World Cup in his home country, referenced Cape Town as he told an English newspaper of the Australians’ conduct: “If you look back on it now, Australia were out of control probably two years, maybe three years, before that, but not in this sense. Maybe - behavioural, chatty, being pretty average people." If Clarke is advocating a return to this same status, maybe he needs to take a deep breath and think again.
The IPL has for a long while now been the favourite whipping boy for all things wrong with cricket. This, even though players are desperate to be drawn into a bidding war, even though cricket boards are happy with the money that comes their way every time a player under their jurisdiction earns a contract, even though several of India’s past players are benefitting tangibly from the very cash cow they are happy to diss. That being said, there has been enough fodder over the years – Lalit Modi’s ouster, and the betting as well as the spot-fixing sagas – for the IPL to be painted as the villain, especially among quarters where the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is likely to remain elusive for the foreseeable future.
But what the IPL has managed, apart from fattening up bank balances and contributing to an overall improvement in fielding and fitness standards -- at the very least – is fostering a spirit of togetherness and understanding among players from different corners of the globe who share more than a dressing-room for the better part of two months. "The IPL has done a lot in terms of respecting each other," Kohli told former England captain Kevin Pietersen on an Instagram tete-a-tete before Clarke’s remarks to a radio station. “I would never ever be able to do it (sledging) with AB (de Villiers). There is a friendship that lasts much longer than all these things." Kohli and de Villiers have been team-mates at Royal Challengers Bangalore since 2011.What do you make of that now, Michael?
Clarke once tried to hustle Michael Hussey into quickly getting to the team’s winning anthem after the Sydney Test victory against South Africa in 2009 because he had another engagement, only for an enraged Simon Katich to hold him by the collar. He was the unmoved captain when Mickey Arthur’s ‘homeworkgate’ in 2013 resulted in four senior players including deputy Shane Watson being dramatically dropped for the Mohali Test. He had refused to walk after being caught at slip off Anil Kumble in the infamous Sydney Test of 2008, where he also confidently claimed a catch against Sourav Ganguly even though subsequent replays indicated he had taken it on the bounce. One wonders what Australia’s current cricketers make of their integrity being questioned by one of their own with a checkered past. After all, if they are afraid that sledging might cost them a contract, then by extension, maybe they are apprehensive too about getting Kohli or Rohit Sharma out for the same reason?
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