Michael Clarke is arguably one of the most gifted cricketers ever to play for Australia. His batting has grace, style, elegance and, most importantly, productivity.
Only Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting have scored more runs than Clarke has for Australia at the same stage of his career and his average of 65 as captain is second only to Sir Donald Bradman.
However, despite immense talent and an outstanding record, fortune has never smiled fondly on Clarke.
In Australia, Clarke is unpopular not just as a cricketer, but as a personality: people don’t like his lifestyle, what he wears, with whom he socialises and even what car he drives. Many people didn’t want him to be captain and still don’t think he should be captain.
He inherited an Australian team alarmingly devoid of leaders and sadly also of talent, and took charge at a time when many problems with the national team can, in fact, be traced back to decisions made by people well outside Clarke’s control at Cricket Australia.
Clarke has struggled with serious back problems throughout his career and, more recently, has had the thankless task of leading a dressing room allegedly divided down the middle.
Of course, there are things Clarke could have done differently in recent months and throughout his career; nobody is perfect.
But it would not be pushing the limits of logic to say that fortune has been far from his friend.
Today he walked to the crease at Old Trafford in the third Ashes Test because of an appalling third umpire decision that sent Usman Khawaja ruefully back to the pavilion, and Clarke's chronic back problem was clearly causing him angst early on in his innings.
When Clarke sat down at lunch with Australia having suffered a mini collapse from 76-0 to 82-2, you’d have forgiven him for feeling that an all-too familiar script was about to be played out.
Fortune was frowning on Clarke yet again.
He emerged after the interval and immediately looked out of sorts. He was groping for the ball outside off stump like Kumar Dharmasena for the "Out" button.
He continually mistimed balls and his inside edge took more glancing blows than Joe Root in a nightclub. He even managed to struggle when not playing a shot—a split-second decision to leave a wide delivery resulted in an ugly inside edge flying through the gully region for four.
If young children were watching at home, parents would have been turning the television off; the normally-angelic Clarke was batting like an blindfolded orangutang.
The magnitude of what was required from the Australian innings and his particular contribution was palpable in his nervous movements and hesitancy to commit on to the front foot.
Following what must have been a gruelling week of media attention and expectation, the pressure on a cricketer whose misfortune seems terminal was clearly visible.
However, Clarke battled on, grinding through the gears, gradually balancing the ratio of plays and misses, and timed and mistimed shots.
At the other end, Chris Rogers’ pleasing and fluent 84 was ended by Swann, bringing Steven Smith to the wicket. Smith’s arrival appeared to settle Clarke further who began unfurling some sumptuous drives.
While he struggled against the seam bowlers intermittently throughout the day, which can perhaps be attributed to his back pain, his footwork to Swann was impeccable.
His zippy feet shimmered down the Old Trafford wicket—little skips, hops and glides took him perfectly to the pitch of the ball where he manipulated the field expertly and cannily with supple wrist-work and a powerful top hand.
As Clarke approached three hours at the crease, his entire game began to come together and the balance that had been conspicuous in its absence against the faster bowlers in the first two Tests returned.
With wonderful pizzazz and elan, he uppercut Stuart Broad over the slips and forcefully punched Tim Bresnan down the ground. The full repertoire of Clarke’s batting came to the fore as he surged to and beyond his 24th Test century.
Smith, meanwhile, further displayed his increasing affinity for Test cricket with highly-disciplined batting, leaving the ball with caution and attacking with certainty. He reached his fifth Test 50 in what is just his 10th Test with a cheeky sweep shot as the shadows lengthened.
England’s bowling was unusually impotent today with only the slightest hint of swing and unsurprisingly rare turn being offered to the four-man attack.
England have only themselves to blame that they had Smith trapped lbw on just 24, but had run out of reviews and, considering their enormous good fortune with the dismissal of Khawaja, the scales of luck did appear to have rebalanced.
However, despite England’s impuissant bowling, Clarke and Smith had to battle fear of failure, enormous pressure and a difficult match situation.
Clarke will be elated with an innings that displayed the grit, determination and fight that his fiercest critics regularly cite he lacks.
That Clarke is not a street-fighter is a myth. His greatest Test innings have come in the face of appreciable adversity and he can add another to that growing list today.
It was an innings in which Clarke wrestled with batting mortality and scrambled with normality before the full grandeur of his prowess was unchained.
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