Cape Town - Few leaders have divided opinion quite like Michael Clarke. The Australian skipper is nowhere near to being universally loved back home due to a public image that exudes all style, but little substance.
However, to those present at a sold out Newlands on Saturday there could be nothing further from the truth. For all they witnessed was a leader willing to not only put his wicket, but also his body – literally – on the line for his team. There are not many occasions when a splendid century, like David Warner’s, gets overshadowed. But Clarke’s innings could be regarded as a defining moment in his career.
The series against the World No 1 South Africans was on the line at their Newlands fortress. Clarke had not been in good form coming into this Test and the hellhounds were closing in after yet another failure in the second Test in Port Elizabeth.
South Africa’s pace attack may have been hamstrung without the injured Dale Steyn, who will undergo a fitness test tomorrow on his injured hamstring to ascertain whether he will play any further part in this Test, but they did have a snorting Morné Morkel. And, my word, did Morkel breathe fire on Saturday on a surface that was as comfortable as a Sunday lazing on nearby Clifton beach.
It was one bouncer after the other in a brutal onslaught from around the wicket in the afternoon session. Clarke suffered blows to the head, neck, shoulder, arms, elbows and other parts of the body
“It was a really fantastic spell from Morné, really hostile,” Shane Warne, who is Australia’s spin consultant on this tour, said. “Michael’s got about five ice packs on his body. He is certainly stiff and sore. Those blows, coming at 150km/h, are certainly not going to tickle.
“They are going to hurt.”
“Clarke was outstanding,” Proteas bowling coach Allan Donald echoed. “He really fronted up. It was a gutsy performance. It was a great piece of theatre out there. The way he went after the Aussie skipper. Morné was really aggressive and his spell was certainly worth two or three wickets,” Donald added.
Unfortunately for South Africa, despite all the hostilities from Morkel, he did not manage to dismiss Clarke, who is still no matter how battered and bruised at the crease, undefeated on 92. And with him is the dangerous Steve Smith on 50. The pair have added 114 runs already in just under 32 overs to maintain the impetus Warner had brought to the Australian innings at the start.
After all the fan-fare surrounding Warner due to ill-timed comments about the South Africans and their alleged ball tampering antics in PE last week, the stocky Australian opener let his bat do the talking with a marvellous century yesterday. The pace at which he scored his runs – a strike-rate of 88.81 – put the South African attack and their captain Graeme Smith under pressure throughout. Smith was forced to put out boundary riders and turn to the part-time spin of JP Duminy as early as the ninth over due to Warner’s assault.
“Davey set the tone early on. Smithy was caught in between because he wanted to stop runs. He (Warner) showed signs of maturity. He was quite clear in how he wanted to bat,” Warne said.
South Africa’s attempts to pick up wickets to stem the run-flow were certainly not helped with Steyn off the field since the 41st over.
“You do miss Dale. He is the spearhead. It’s disappointing, but there is nothing you can do. He’ll have a fitness test in the morning. He is stiff and a little sore, but it is a huge day and somebody has to make a play,” former champion fast bowler Donald said.