Why Michael Clarke is more than just a cricket captain
It has been a tumultuous week for world cricket. The sport lost a 25-year-old batsman just a few days before his birthday and a possible call-up to his nation's Test team. A double celebration was on the cards. Yet, here we are mourning the loss of a young life with emotion-sapping eulogies.
Those who knew Hughes, speak glowingly of the man. While those who didn't, listen intently to understand why he was so loved. One of the people who knew Hughes well was Australian skipper Michael Clarke.
Clarke may not have too many admirers in world cricket. He is a typical Aussie – fiery, in-your-face and gives it as good as he gets. He loves chirping on the field and getting under the skin of opposition players.
At times, he tries to intimidate his opponents, like he successfully did James Anderson in the Ashes series. Clarke could be heard telling Anderson that he be prepared to get a broken arm. Obviously, Anderson had no reason to doubt it with Mitchell Johnson at his hostile best.
Yet Clarke displayed another side of personality this week in the aftermath of the Phil Hughes' tragedy. He made an effortless transformation from a captain of a cricket team to a truly inspirational leader.
Clarke has been part of many epic battles on the pitch. His duel with Dale Steyn in South Africa made for compelling viewing of Test cricket. It probably was the most intimidating, hostile and difficult spell of fast bowling he's ever dealt with. But he dealt with all that and more in this past week.
Yet, Clarke didn't once duck, bob or weave as he'd done in that Test against Steyn. He insulated Hughes' family from all the media attention and himself opted not to hide behind Cricket Australia's media manager. He came out and said what had to be said.
Clarke was one of the first cricketers to arrive at the Sydney hospital after Hughes had been admitted. As “Hughsey” fought for his life, Clarke made sure he was right besides his mate's family. When Phil couldn't make it to the finish line, it was Clarke who addressed the media, reading out a message from the Hughes family.
It was moving to see him leave the press conference immediately as he finished reading the last word from that note. Heart-ache was written large on his face. He didn't crack under tremendous pressure or surrender under the burden of emotion. He was visibly distraught, but held himself together while the eyes of the cricketing world were on him. He didn't have to do that press conference. But he did.
While Hughes was the focal point of everyone's attention, the skipper didn't fail to notice young Sean Abbott in a little corner, away from the epicentre. The 22-year-old fast bowler admitted he was a 'broken man' after bowling that fateful delivery that took Hughes' life. Clarke's message to Abbott was inspiring and deeply emotional.
"Sean, when you feel like getting back on the horse mate, I promise you that I will be the first one to strap on the pads, go and stand at the end of the net and hit them back at you. It is exactly what Hugh Dog would want us both to do".
In the days running up to funeral, Clarke wrote a heart-rending piece about Hughes and their friendship. Ahead of funeral, it was announced that Clarke would be one of the pallbearers and one of the people who'd pay him a tribute during the funeral service. Again, the skipper was solidly behind the grieving family right through their ordeal.
On what was arguably the toughest day, Clarke shone like a beacon of light. He had a lump in his throat even before he began his heartfelt eulogy. He choked, broke down, but delivered the most perfect and touching address. It was devastating to watch. Even the feisty Mitchell Johnson wept uncontrollably, followed by the famed pace battery of Australia. As did fans watching on their television sets around the world.
Clarke concluded his eulogy, saying "We must dig in and get through to tea. Rest in peace my little brother, I'll see you out in the middle."
Even as he was about to bury a teammate and dear friend, Clarke was exemplary in his conduct. Australian and world cricket should be proud of the courage displayed by a member of their fraternity.
When the Border-Gavaskar series commences on December 9, the Aussies will be convinced that the torch is in the hands of the best possible man to guide them through these dark times.
Michael Clarke is a modern day great. He is a fine batsman and an astute captain. His aggressive approach and daring declarations may have won him several plaudits but as this week demonstrated, Clarke showed he was a first-rate human being and an inspirational leader.
In what was one of the worst weeks for cricket in general, Michael Clarke brought out the best in him. His nickname 'Pup' does not do justice to his newly elevated stature. He is now the 'Big Dog'.