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While the Rainbow Nation had been preparing them for Graeme Smith’s farewell party, Michael Clarke decided to spoil the farewell with an act of bravado that has had few parallels in the history of the sport on March 1, 2014. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the day when The General decided to take blows to protect his hoplites.
It was supposed to a banquet under the starry nights. Instead, what the world witnessed was Newlands being converted to Valhalla for five days. The last day witnessed an epic duel between Australia, spearheaded by the lion-hearted, Ryan Harris — whose knee had been reduced to a chipped china cup and the hip flexor was about to cave in — and an entire South African line-up who simply refused to give up.
The series had started on a high for Australia at Centurion: Shaun Marsh, Steve Smith, and David Warner all scored hundreds, but it was Mitchell Johnson’s devastating 12 for 127 that decided the Test for Australia. South Africa hit back at St George’s Park with AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, and Hashim Amla all scoring hundreds, and Dale Steyn tearing the heart out of the Australian line-up in the fourth innings: nobody reached double-figures barring the openers.
With the series levelled, the teams moved to Newlands — a venue where South African had won all eight previous Tests — but there was a shock waiting for them before Graeme Smith went out to flip the coin with Michael Clarke: Smith, perhaps the man who had defined cricket more than anyone else in the 21st century, had announced his retirement.
While the world mourned the end of the career of the kid they had witnessed outgrow them and develop into a man like few other, he went out to toss with Clarke, returned to the pavilion, and let his mates know that they will be bowling first.
The other captain
Clarke’s tale had been different from Smith’s. It had never been a fairytale rise for him. Instead, he was left to defend and rebuild on the debris of a lost empire. There were a couple of dry years, but his excellent form in 2012 and having regained the Ashes with a whitewash, the Australians seemed to be back on track.
Chris Rogers, the oldest member of the squad, held out for close to an hour, before edging one to Smith at slip off Steyn, whose first spell had been surprisingly wayward. Warner carried on with his business of mauling the fast bowlers without any trace of sympathy when it happened. Alex Doolan struggled for a while before trying to pull Vernon Philander half-heartedly, and the top-edge ballooned to Steyn himself. Out strode Clarke.
Down the memory lane
Two seasons before the innings in question, Clarke had pulled off a dazzling 176-ball 151 in one of the most outrageous displays of counter-attack. The opposition was the same, as were the bunch of speedsters — and to top it all, it was at the same ground. He had come out to bat at 40 for three, and was last out for 284.
The innings, however, had gone in vain despite South Africa’s dramatic collapse to 94. Philander’s magic spell had bowled out Australia for a mere 47 (they were 21 for nine at one stage), and hundreds from Smith and Amla helped South Africa cruise to a easy eight-wicket victory.
Shells and shrapnel
Warner’s hundred took him 104 balls, and it came up with a controlled pull past fine-leg. The helmet was kissed, and business resumed. Then it happened: Steyn bowled the first ball of his eleventh over, Clarke pushed it to mid-off, and watched happily as Steyn limped off the ground with a pulled hamstring.
Smith summoned Morkel to finish the over. The first three deliveries were innocuous ones, and Morkel came round the wicket. The intention was obvious, given Clarke’s ill-reputation against bounce. The fifth ball, bowled at a menacing pace, went harmlessly down the leg.
Clarke later said in an interview with Andrew Ramsey of Cricket Australia: “You either take a risk — a big risk for me anyway — to try and score, and that was because Morkel was bowling around the wicket and short at me so I would have had to either step away and cut it, and they had a third man. Or try and take on the pull and hook shot, and they had two guys out. So it was either take maximum risk or accept I was going to cop a few.”
The sixth smashed into Clarke’s ribs and got buried somewhere between his elbow and body. Even if it had hurt (it should have, if Clarke had been human), he did not grimace. The third ball of the next over hit his elbow with an almost audible crunch: the dressing-room knew something was wrong, and Alex Kountouris rushed out.
Kontouris later told Ramsey: “Batters get hit like that on the forearm all the time and it’s either on the fleshy part when they get away with a bruise, or on the bone when there’s a reasonable chance it breaks. So it’s usually an easy diagnosis — if it’s a bruise, it’s sore but they can still grip bat but if it’s broken arm they can’t manage any grip and they’re off the ground fairly quickly. Michael’s [Clarke’s] arm was swollen enough to be broken, tender enough to be broken, and he was struggling to grip — all the signs that really worried me, but he was keen to keep going so we kept him out there.”
And so Clarke stayed on. And the next ball hit him on the right glove, or rather, rammed his right thumb against the bat. The blow had broken a nail, but that would be revealed much later. Five balls later Morkel hit Clarke again: it was a bouncer as vicious as any; Clarke tried to move his face away, but the ball was too quick for him; the ball hit him on the jaw.
It has always been the strategy of Clive Lloyd’s West Indians of the 1970s and 1980s to go for the captain. Kontouris and Peter Bunker [the team doctor] rushed out to the centre, and it was only after a thorough examination that they confirmed that there was no fracture on the jaw.
Kontouris later admitted that the blow had reminded him of Justin Langer’s injury off a Makhaya Ntini bouncer in the former’s 100th Test. Just like Clarke, Langer had been determined to carry on, but ended up spending three days with concussion and could not take any further part in the Test.
He was somewhat taken aback when he found Clarke complaining about his shoulder instead of his jaw:
Kontouris: Okay, so your shoulder’s hurting but how’s your head? “Have you got a headache? Do you know where you are? Can you tell me today’s date?
Clarke: I know where I am, but my shoulder’s killing me.
Kontouris later told Ramsey: “At the time, we didn’t realise it had hit him on the shoulder first and then ricocheted into his head, which is where our attention was focused because it’s the more fragile part. So all my questions were geared around checking for concussion but that’s not what he wanted to discuss — I kept thinking ‘we’re not talking about your shoulder here, you just got hit in the head’.”
The next ball hit Clarke on the glove again, and he was beaten by another scorching bouncer off the last ball. At this stage he had reached 13 from 52 balls. At stumps on Day One he was still there, battling on a 181-ball 92. X-rays later revealed that the blow had fractured his shoulders.
The agonising night
Clarke stumbled to the dressing-room as play came to an end. Clarke later confessed Ramsey that he was not able to point out which part of his body hurt him most. Ice-packs were administered to his thumb, shoulder, forearm, and jaw as Kontouris and Bunker considered anaesthesia.
Hospitalisation and drips were not an option. Clarke helped himself to a light dinner with the knowledge that the battle would resume the next day. Ramsey wrote: “He [Clarke] was, after all, figuratively unbeaten on 92 when the game’s first day had ended. His team held the upper hand, and needed to drive home that advantage. He had a Test match to win.”
In the wee hours of the night Kontouris discussed that ice and rest were the best possible prescriptions for Clarke. With the Australian captain lying on the physiotherapist’s bench, Kontouris switched the lights off and left. Clarke let out a muffled protest on the lines of “I’ll be right, I’ll just lay here for a while,” but by the time the physiotherapist had left he had fallen into the deepest of slumbers.
The morning after
Clarke woke up sleep-deprived, nauseous, and in agony, but still went through the required drill the next morning, but there were still speculations regarding the resumption of his innings. Clarke’s mind was made up: “I had no choice. I had to go and bat. We needed more runs and once you walk out on the field the adrenaline kicks in and a lot of the pain goes away anyway. I would do it again tomorrow if that’s what it takes to win.”
But his teammates cared for him. Rogers, having realised that another blow might spell doom for his captain, lent him his arm-guard — something he had never cared for. Arm-guards and chest-guards have always been a big no-no for him: they had always come in the way of freedom of his movements. The most he had used was a towelling sweatband just above his gloves.
Then Rogers realised that his worn-away arm-guard might not be as useful to Clarke as a new one. He procured a fresh one from his kit — one that had been gifted to Warner earlier — and Clarke, for once, gave in to the plea of his obstinate teammate. With a “smashed and bloodied” right thumb, a broken shoulder (that was revealed later), an almost numb elbow, and an aching jaw, Clarke eventually walked out to bat.
Clarke’s father Les, a grade cricketer for Sydney’s Western Suburbs, sent a message the moment Clarke reached his hundred after spending 24 balls on 99. He had seen the arm-guard. “Finally, you’ve woken up to yourself,” it said. A few hours later he declared the innings on 494 for seven, having reached 161 not out himself.
Rogers later told Ramsey: “I can see the pride in Michael [Clarke], and that he felt he hadn’t reached the standards that he sets himself. So you could see how much he wanted it, and he was going to run through a wall to do well and to really show to everyone that he’s as good as anyone in the world…At times you can try too hard and want it too much, and there’s no doubt that Michael wanted it so badly.”
Shane Warne chipped in as well: “I thought he just hung in there, and you what? He just said, ‘over my dead body; you keep hitting me till I can’t stand up’.” Having been battered and bruised on his body, the centurion had commanded his myrmidons to the safety of an unassailable target.
- A hostile spell from the moustachioed monster that was Johnson help bowl out South Africa to 287 despite a brave resistance from Faf du Plessis and Philander, who added 95 for the seventh wicket.
- The absence of an injured Steyn resulted in a Warner thumping his second hundred of the Test, this time a 156-ball 143, effectively sealing the Test in Australia’s favour. Clarke was out for a golden duck, trying to hit Kyle Abbott over mid-off and holing out to the substitute fielder Quinton de Kock. Steyn’s injury restricted him to three overs, and South Africa were set to score 511 or to bat out four sessions.
- They were jolted by Harris, who was not expected to take field, let alone bowl — and were reduced to 74 for four at stumps. The Proteas held fort the next day, with de Villiers, Abbott, du Plessis, and Duminy all playing their roles to perfection, but in the end it came down to Philander and Steyn with 20 overs to play out. They stood ground for 14 overs, but that man Harris kept coming back at him, he clean bowled Steyn and Morkel in three balls to snatch a sensational victory.
Australia 494 for 7 decl. (David Warner 135, , Shane Watson 40, Michael Clarke 161*, Steve Smith 84; JP Duminy 4 for 73) and 303 for 5 decl. (David Warner 145; Kyle Abbott 3 for 61) beat South Africa 287 (Faf du Plessis 67, Alviro Petersen 53; Mitchell Johnson 4 for 42, Ryan Harris 3 for 63) and 265 (Hashim Amla 41, AB de Villiers 43, Faf du Plessis 47, JP Duminy 43, Vernon Philander 51*; Ryan Harris 4 for 32, Mitchell Johnson 3 for 92) by 245 runs.
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