• Australia

Michael and his mitten

Peter Della Penna
May 7, 2014
Michael Clarke guided Australia to an Ashes series whitewash win © Getty Images

Michael Clarke spoke to ESPNcricinfo's Peter Della Penna in New York about striving to field like baseball players, Australian aggression, playing Pakistan in the UAE, and his thoughts on day-night Tests...

How far back would you have been starting to put a baseball glove in your kit bag?
I think it was 12 years ago. Mike Young, an American who now does a lot for Australian cricket and is a fielding coach for the Australian cricket team, introduced me to carrying a mitt or a glove with me on a daily basis and got us using gloves at training to protect your hand from being injured while training.

Why do you think there haven't been more baseball coaches like him to come from the US and infiltrate cricket and help raise the standards across the board globally and not just with the Australian team?
I think you'll find that there's a lot of baseball coaches involved in some form of cricket, whether it be the first-class system or grade cricket. I think Mike's obviously at the pinnacle with the Australian team. The fielding of baseball is something that a cricketer always strives [for]. They've got amazing arms. They're very athletic. They speed to the ball.

I've been fortunate enough to watch a little bit of the Major League over here and to see the type of athletes that are playing Major League Baseball. I think that's one of the areas that we can watch and learn from: how Americans do field, and that's where Youngy's been fantastic for us. He's brought a lot of that experience to cricket.

What other sports would you say cricket can learn from? What other sports do you follow, American sports-wise, besides baseball?
I've watched a little bit of basketball. I think it's not so much the actual sport we can learn from. I think it'd be an insult to either cricket or baseball or basketball to compare the sports. I think it's more that each sport is very successful standing on their own two feet in their own right. What I've loved so much about being in America is seeing how professional the sports are around the country, how good a following the teams have. Being in St Louis and seeing how closely the public supports and follows the Cardinals, it's phenomenal. It's unbelievable. People turn up to that game day in, day out and support their team, win, lose or draw. It's been fantastic to see.

You wear the No. 23 for Australia, and before that, Shane Warne made that number popular in Australia. But more prominently worldwide and in the US, Michael Jordan was the person who made the number famous. What about him and his career has impacted you in your career?
I think as any athlete around the world, when you think about the pinnacle, Michael Jordan's obviously that. The Americans I think of off the top of my head are Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter.

My number was actually handed down from Shane Warne to me, so I didn't choose that number. It was given to me and it's obviously an honour and privilege to wear that number. There's been a lot of great sportsmen that have worn 23 and hopefully at the end of my career I can be one of those great guys to have played cricket for Australia. So still a lot of work to do for me.

Baseball came to the Sydney Cricket Ground recently. It had the opening games between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. Were you at those games and what was that experience like, having baseball come to such an iconic place like the SCG?
Seeing that stadium get transformed was unbelievable. I think it was very special for sport in Australia, obviously for baseball. I think it gave the people of Sydney and Australia the opportunity to see how professional the baseball is in America. I think everybody was entertained. Hopefully it was enjoyed back here in America, but I guarantee the people of Australia had a fantastic time and we hope there's more of it.

A few people might have been unhappy about the fact that the Shield final had to be moved from the SCG to Canberra because of these games. What do you think cricketers in general felt about that, in terms of the tradition, the Shield final having to be moved from the SCG, and was it a worthwhile sacrifice?
Being a New South Welshman, a man from Sydney, I'd love every Shield game to be played at the Sydney Cricket Ground but that doesn't happen. We play a lot of games throughout the year at different venues because there's either other sports in the Sydney Cricket Ground or financially they just can't afford to play every game there. I think the players understand. It was made very clear to the New South Wales team at the start of the year that this would be the case if we made the final, and every state deals with that. If South Australia made the final, for instance, they couldn't play at their home ground because I think the Rolling Stones were playing there. So that happens in first-class cricket. They try and keep the major stadiums for the international games and sometimes we need to play [first-class] games at different venues. I'm pretty sure the players understand.

There's been some consternation about what's happening with the Adelaide Oval with its redevelopment more or less making it tailored more towards Aussie Rules Football. Ricky Ponting was somewhat outspoken about how he was disappointed with what was happening. A couple of years ago the SCG was redeveloped a little bit. They took away the hill and put in more seating. What do you feel about the way some of the grounds in Australia are being redesigned or redeveloped? Do you think it's robbing some of them of their distinct character or identity?
I think we are blessed in Australia to have so many fantastic stadiums. I think what has happened to the Adelaide Oval has been magnificent. I think the people of South Australia deserve a lot of credit. I think the ground still has the history and tradition of a fantastic cricket ground and one that I love playing on, and now it's built to entertain more people.

At the end of the day, that's where our game is going. It's an entertainment business. Our job is to walk out and perform on the field, and the more people that can come and watch and support us, I think the better for cricket. I'm extremely fortunate [that I get] to play all around the world at some magnificent grounds. Maybe I'm a little bit biased but they don't get too much better than around Australia.

"What I've loved so much about being in America and seeing is how professional the sports are around the country, how good a following the teams have. People turn up to that game day in, day out and support their team, win lose or draw"
Michael Clarke

You're here in New York and not at the IPL, which is one of the biggest entertainment spectacles in cricket. Why doesn't the IPL hold that appeal to you as much as it does for so many other players?
I think it does. I've been fortunate to play once. Unfortunately I missed last year due to injury. The greatest thing about the IPL is that it's up to each individual to make a decision on if they want to go. It's not your country saying yes you have to go or no.

The reason I'm not there this year is because my body needed a break. I'm now 33. I've got a broken shoulder, I guess, so that's another reason to spend some time out of cricket. Hence why I'm not training or playing or doing anything at the moment.

But I think the IPL is a fantastic tournament. I'd love to go back and have another go when the time is right for me. It's been a big 12 months for Australian cricket and I think it would've been wrong of me to go play for a team and not give my all, so I decided to give my body and mind a break and get ready for the international season starting again shortly.

The 2015 World Cup is going to be here in less than a year. You've got another Ashes series not too far beyond that. Do you have a target time frame in mind in terms of when you want to retire?
Forty-five (laughs).

Look, I don't, to be honest. My body and my mind will dictate when it's time to walk away from the game. Or I'm like any other player: I can get dropped at any stage. Obviously it's a performance-based game. As long as I'm performing well and helping the team have success, I think I'll continue to play until I don't have that drive to try and get better. That's what gets me out of bed every single day. I want to become a better player. It's why I go and train every single day of my life. Once that drive stops, that's when I'll walk away from the game, or if I'm not performing, the selectors will drop me.

Derek Jeter, you mentioned before - this is his last season with the Yankees.
How old is Derek?

Thirty-eight or 39. Thirty-nine.
That's good to hear (laughs).

When he made his announcement, one of the things he touched on was that when he was growing up, his dad told him, "If it comes to a point where baseball feels more like a job than something you enjoy and you want to get up and do every day, that's when you know it's going to be time to stop." Do you feel that way?
It hasn't felt like a job ever for me. I remember as a six-year-old boy running to my window and opening the curtains first thing in the morning to see if it's raining, and praying it's not raining so you can go and play. When I used to open the blinds and see rain I'd be in tears and it's no different now. I'm probably not in tears now but I'm still just as upset. So the love and the passion is as strong as it has ever been for me, and maybe taking over the captaincy and seeing the team slowly build some success, maybe that's given me more drive. But I don't disagree with that. I think if it does become a job then no doubt I'll walk away.

It's been a few months since the end of the 5-0 Ashes success and also the tour in South Africa. Where do those victories rank compared to other career accomplishments like the previous 5-0 Ashes and the 2007 World Cup win?
I don't think it would be fair for me to compare 2007, when we won 5-0 and then won the World Cup, to what we've just achieved as a team over the past 12 months, and my reason for that is because we had two completely different teams. I think in 2007 we had a team with a lot of experience. If you picked an Australian all-time great team, you could get five of those players in that team. I don't think we have that calibre in our team right now individually, but we certainly have a great team, and I think we proved that to a lot of people over the last 12 months. The other side to that is, I still think we have a lot of room for improvement as a team. I think we've played some really good cricket.

Our greatest challenge is to not only win in Australia but to be able to win away from home, and that's probably why South Africa was so pleasing to us as a team. We haven't had much success away from home over the past few years, so to beat the No. 1 team in their own backyard is something we're all very proud of. But we've got a lot of work to do. We've got the World Cup coming up at the back end of the Australian summer. Then we go to England and play the Ashes over there and we haven't had much success for a while in the UK in Test cricket.

Did you know when you were batting in the last Test in South Africa that you had a fracture in your shoulder?
I knew I had a sore shoulder, but no, I didn't know. I went and had my thumb scanned and they asked me if I wanted to have my shoulder scanned and I said, no, I think it's just bruised. I got back to Australia ten days after and I was still in a bit of pain, so then I gave in and said, right, I'll go and have an MRI, and they found the fracture.

At the time it's hard. You're so focused on the job at hand and the adrenaline and the emotion is running. To me it was about doing my job for the team. If you've got to cop a couple of bruises or the occasional fracture then so be it. It's worth it.

Michael Clarke: "Sometimes when you're playing international sport at the highest level, emotions come out. But we do understand there's a line you can't cross" © Getty Images

Knowing after the fact that you did have that injury, where did you rate the century you scored?
No different with or without the injury. I think the hundred was special for me because I remember batting in Cape Town the tour before and I made a hundred and we lost that Test match. I said at the time that it doesn't matter how many runs you make - if you lose, it's irrelevant. So to be able to score a hundred and help contribute in the series in an important Test match, and more importantly to win the game, then yeah, it's a special hundred.

In the Wisden Almanack Martin Crowe was fairly critical of Australia's aggression throughout the home Ashes, and it kind of ties in a little bit to the South Africa tour. He wrote: "When the heat gets under an Aussie's collar, when he faces pressure or the prospect of defeat… too often it becomes crudely personal and that is when cricket's spirit and integrity are lost." You had a verbal spat with James Anderson in Brisbane and there was an incident with Dale Steyn in South Africa. Do you think Crowe's assessment is fair?
Martin Crowe is certainly entitled to his own opinion, like the rest of us. I think we play our cricket hard on the field, but I think as Australians we understand and respect there's a line you can't cross. I made no bones about the incident in Brisbane and what I said to James Anderson wasn't appropriate, especially being over a stump mic, where boys and girls can hear that, and I did the same with the Dale Steyn incident. Sometimes when you're playing international sport at the highest level, emotions come out for people to see and I think that's a great thing about our game. But we do understand there's a line you can't cross. I think generally Australians play cricket extremely fairly.

Why do you think those incidents tend to happen more in Test cricket as opposed to T20 cricket or one-day cricket?
I think it's just what some of the media picks up. You're as pumped for T20 cricket and one-day cricket as you are for Test cricket. I can tell you in my career 100 different instances like those that nobody knows about because it's not over the stump mic or you can't see it first-hand.

I respect Martin Crowe a lot. I think he was a fantastic player. I think he's a lovely man and I've had a lot to do with Martin. The Australian way is to play tough, non-compromising cricket on the field. I think if you speak to a lot of the other players, you'll find that we're very social off the field. We go out of our way to go and make sure we see the opposition team - win, lose or draw after a game.

The next Test series coming up for Australia is in the UAE, in spinning conditions against Pakistan. Australia struggled a fair bit in Bangladesh during the World T20 and also on the last tour to India. What needs to change in terms of the approach to spin bowling?
I think facing spin bowling has always been an area of Australian cricketers' game that we continually need to improve. We're fortunate in Australia to have really good wickets that do have pace and bounce and then later on in the game you get spin, but when you play in the subcontinent you're getting spin from ball one. You're getting less bounce. You're getting more natural variation off the wicket. So I think the more we can experience playing in those conditions, the better we'll become. I know our junior programmes do a lot more in regards to travelling to the subcontinent to learn about those conditions now than, say, what we did when I was a young player.

The UAE is going to be an extremely tough series. Pakistan have a very strong team and they have had a lot of success in the past. They know those conditions really well and they've got a very good team. They complement each other. They've got a good pace attack, some good spinners, and some experienced batters, so that's going to be a tough challenge for us but we look forward to it.

One of the main bowlers in their attack, Saaed Ajmal, is considered a mystery spinner. He bowls the doosra. Sunil Narine with West Indies bowls that. We don't see it as much from Australian fingerspinners. Do you think that's something that should be encouraged?
I don't think it matters how you bowl. It's about consistency, execution and learning your art. Saeed Ajmal is a wonderful bowler and one of his greatest strengths is he can spin the ball both ways, but a lot of people don't understand and realise how accurate he is. He can bowl over after over and land the ball on a 20-cent coin.

Nathan Lyon, our current fingerspinner, has shown by bowling the way he bowls he can have as much success as anybody else.

Are there players that you think potentially could break into the one-day squad in the build-up to the World Cup or do you think the squad is more or less settled?
I think there's a lot of cricket still to come before the World Cup, so there's going to be an opportunity for a number of players. It doesn't matter what form of the game you're playing, it's about consistent performance. If you can score runs as a batsman, take wickets as a bowler, you're going to be in the front of the selectors' minds. And for a major tournament, they'll be looking for players that are in form.

"The UAE is going to be an extremely tough series. Pakistan have a very strong team They know those conditions really well. They've got a good pace attack, some good spinners and some experienced batters"
Michael Clarke

Cricket Australia has been pushing in the last couple of years to possibly have day-night Test cricket. Chief executive James Sutherland has been quoted as saying if the pink ball is going to be used, there might be some issues with whether or not it will last for 80 overs, and would players be willing to accept changing the ball sooner than that. Would you be willing to play under those conditions?
I think I'd have to try it first, probably at a first-class level, before I could comment on that. I think they used the pink ball during the last round or second-to-last round of Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia. When I get back home, I'll have that conversation with a few of the players and see what they think, but yeah, it would be interesting to see how it goes.

Do you think there needs to be day-night Test cricket in order for Test cricket to still stay as competitive?
No, I don't. I think there's room for all three forms of the game that we play now. If you've watched any Test cricket over the past 12 months, there would have been a lot of people off their chairs watching the game. Long may that continue, whether it be during the day or at night.

Looking ahead to the World Cup next year, if you do win as captain on home soil, where would that rank in terms of career accomplishments?
I would not have a clue. We have so much cricket before the World Cup I haven't even thought about it. Obviously every tournament you play, every game you play, you want to have success. You want to win. So we'll go to that tournament trying and preparing to win every game we play. But I don't look that far ahead. People talk about major events, the Ashes or the World Cup. Every time you represent your country, that's a major event. Every game you win, I cherish as much as any other game. It doesn't matter if I'm playing against India, South Africa, England, World Cup. They're all special and they all take a lot of hard work and discipline to have success. What's the pinnacle for me? Winning a game of cricket for Australia.

When you made your debut, did you ever think you'd play 375 international games for Australia?
No. Certainly not, but again because I was so focused on that one game, and that's the way I've been my whole career. Whatever my statistics end up at the end of my career, I'll be very proud. I'm certainly not one of those guys that looks at his stats and has a certain amount of games or runs or wins I want to achieve. It's about trying to do the best I can with every game I play and however long this journey lasts then I'm extremely thankful.

What do you want to do after cricket?
I've just started up a cricket academy in Australia, so I'm going to try and give back to the game there. I was very fortunate at a young age through my parents to have plenty of opportunity to go and play cricket. My mum and dad owned an indoor sports centre, so rain, hail or shine, I had facilities to pick up a bat and ball and play cricket. I want to do the same for young kids all around the world, and definitely Australian kids. I think I'll have a huge impact in regards to spending some time at my cricket academy.

I think I'll be involved in business. To what extent I'm not sure, but I certainly have an interest there and I'm fortunate in having a lot of close friends that have been successful in their own fields outside of sports. So hopefully I can continue to learn and communicate with those guys and have some help and advice there and have a little bit of success in business as well.

What do you want your legacy in the game to be?
I don't think that's for me to say. I think the public that watch, whether people come to games or watch on television, I think they'll decide what my legacy is. For me it's about trying to do the best I can do, trying to help the Australian team have success, and if I can do that, people will make their own judgement.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna

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