New Test skipper Clarke polarises opinion
Sydney: 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 Monday`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 Melbourne Test 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`s 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 eight percent of respondents favoured 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 resignedly.
"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."
The reasons for the animosity are not clear. He is a cleanskin when it comes to off-field behaviour 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 criticise me.”
"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 Wellington Test.
There was also an incident following Australia`s win over South Africa three years ago in Sydney when he passed on his vice-captain duty 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 Sydney Test, 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 number four in the Australian batting order with 148 runs in seven innings for an average 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.
"He speaks their language," CA spokesman Peter Young said. "He will be Australia`s first Gen-Y Test captain. In terms of leadership, we go into Sydney with absolute confidence."