The West

So why is Michael Clarke so unpopular?
So why is Michael Clarke so unpopular?

On the first morning of the SCG Test match last year, Michael Clarke spoke at a 7am breakfast for his Sydney club team, Western Suburbs.

Questioned about a survey published in a Sydney newspaper which found he was about as popular as smallpox and advising him to get a blue heeler and a ute in a bid to find something in common with the average Australian, Clarke was ferocious in his defence of his individuality.

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"That is not me," he said. "If driving a ute and putting a dog in the back is the thing that will make me popular, well I'm not actually sure if I will ever be popular. And anyway, I live in an apartment at Bondi so I don't know what I would do with a cattle dog."

It was an interesting snapshot of what makes Clarke tick.

It showed a flash of humour, a trait that Australia's newest Test captain has mostly managed to conceal during his increasingly earnest public comments about his once turbulent private life (rare), his fluctuating form (occasional) and the team's needs (often).

It confirmed that he would not take a backwards step when challenged and was willing to fight his corner as hard as was needed.

And perhaps most significantly, it revealed Clarke to be conscious of the debt he owed his club and the people who aided his development from a promising 13-year-old to one of the best batsmen in the world.

Turning up early to a club function on the first day of a Test is not a commitment that would be matched by many of his teammates, yet Clarke has done it every summer that he has been in the Australian team.

But he is still as popular as an infectious disease, as a current Melbourne newspaper discovered with an online survey that found only 16 per cent of nearly 25,000 respondents thought he should be the next Australian captain.

In Clarke's favour though is the survey trend showing that his approval rating has doubled in the past two days.

"The problem is that people don't know Michael and if you don't know him perhaps it is easy to take a set against him," Dave O'Neil suggested.

O'Neil was a selector when Clarke arrived at Western Suburbs 16 years ago, is still cricket manager and has seen the once promising junior fulfil his potential like few other youngsters from Sydney's vast suburban expanse west of the city.

"If you haven't dealt with him it is hard to know what a wonderful young man he was and has become," O'Neil said.

"He is calm, polite, respectful - all the things you hope young sportsmen will be and perhaps not quite the flash young fellow that his appearance suggests."

But O'Neil was pragmatic enough to suggest that Clarke's major failing in the public eye was to not score enough runs when the issue of the captaincy succession had come to the fore.

Ricky Ponting turned 36 last year and while he was as fit as he had been in years, the reality was that his time was rapidly coming to an end.

As Ponting's deputy, Clarke is the frontrunner to replace him, but he has responded to the imminent vacancy in unconvincing fashion, averaging 34.74, 8.75 and 21.14 in his past three series and, apart from 80 in a losing cause in Adelaide, doing nothing of note this Ashes contest.

"Perhaps he has not put his stamp on matches like Ponting and other big names have done in the past," O'Neil said.

"And maybe he has simply not scored enough runs in recent times. If he was producing the runs that he did last year or three or four years ago, I am sure the country would be right behind him as the natural bloke to replace Ricky."

Clarke's attachments have probably not helped his cause and certainly led to the blue heeler call. He will be the first Australian Test captain to sport a diamond rock in an ear and massive tattoos, a shock to many, including short-back-and-sides players like Rod Marsh and Doug Walters, who may have avoided body art like the plague but whose early starts on a Test day were as likely to be down to a late finish, as they were to aiding a club cause.

And it didn't help that his former girlfriend was Lara Bingle, a glamorous blonde and model who courted publicity relentlessly without having any discernible currency to offer in return, making it easy to suggest that Clarke was "simply up himself".

Many did suggest just that, though successive series averages of 77, 216, 45, 56, 35, 72, 76, 28, 64, 52, 63 and 86 between the start of the last Ashes series in Australia and the end of last summer would equally suggest that here was a batsman of rare class.

Prolific Sri Lankans Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara were the only batsmen to score more runs at a better average than Clarke's 3252 at 60.22 during that period, and they did not come close to playing in as many as his 23 victories.

Yet for all his class and capacity to score big runs in all conditions, there is still something about Clarke that rankles observers near and far.

His teammates claim that he is a warm and engaging figure in the team - Brad Haddin and Marcus North both insisting yesterday that he was the life of the change rooms and a sharp wit who regularly boosted morale.

Yet examples emerge of a cool and calculating individual. Think of Graham Manou, who made a remarkable Test debut at Edgbaston last year when Haddin was injured only moments before the match.

The media asked to speak to Manou after his first day on the job and he was happy to oblige, until Clarke urged him to stay away from the microphones and notepads because "they would make his life a misery".

Manou was pretty sure he was not destined for the limelight and the attendant pressures, but bowed to the advice of a senior colleague.

He still regrets it.

Simon Katich has his own view, an opinion that was forcefully expressed when he grabbed Clarke in a throat hold in the SCG change rooms two seasons ago.

Ostensibly that argument was about Clarke wanting to get the victory celebrations out of the way so he could catch up with his family, friends and then girlfriend Bingle, a stance his management team was eager to portray as a gregarious 21st century man wanting to escape the faintly juvenile traditions of a team trapped by the past.

The other view is that Clarke volunteered such a frank, candid and disparaging analysis of a highly respected teammate that he was lucky to escape with little more than fingerprints embedded on his voicebox.

Only two months ago, several Australian players, including Mike Hussey, denied that Clarke was so on the nose that they would not play under him. Smoke was billowing from the Australian camp at the time, but any fire was rapidly extinguished and smothered in a blanket of denials.

On Monday, Clarke's men will have the chance to prove their doubters wrong. Anything less will ignite another storm of speculation, though that is something he has learnt to live with. And no matter what happens, he will still be going to the Western Suburbs breakfast.

The West Australian

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