Before we steam headlong into the World T20, we’ve got a change of pace for you. Over the next few weeks guest writer Sam Cox will be asking whether certain cricketers are worthy of a place in cricket’s hall of fame. He kicks things off today with a piece about Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson. Were these recent Ashes foes truly ‘great’ or will they live forever in the shadow of the great Australians who preceded them? Enjoy.
Australian Cricket took a rough hit back down to ground when they lost the 2005 Ashes, and the most dominant side in cricketing history never truly recovered from losing to those Poms.
The following series in 2006/7 allowed to of the games all time greats to walk out with their heads held high, as Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath demolished an England side in total meltdown. Injuries reaped chaos amongst an England squad that had lost its baby face shine of just 18 months before. Warne and McGrath’s cosy home in the hall of cricketing brilliance is without question, but the extraordinary hyperbole surrounding two of the stars who succeeded them is more questionable.
Mitchell Johnson and Michael Clarke have both retired to a fanfare of admiration. Stats were brandished around like numbers have just been discovered. Some of the sport’s biggest names in the media wrote eulogies as if we had lost two of the greatest players to walk onto Lord’s square.
‘Spirit of cricket’ is the most deplorable buzz-term you can imagine, but these two regularly pushed the boundaries of what is right in the gentlemen’s game. This alone does not question their quality as players, yet it has been conveniently overlooked. Instead Australian coverage has created a shrine for two of their recent retirees.
Mitchell Johnson, for instance, before his broken toe in 2011, was nothing more than a scatter-gun slinger. He’d failed miserably to live up to mantel of Gillespie, McGrath and Lee. Johnson’s 2009 and 2010/11 Ashes series were enough to end most players’ careers. In fact, if it wasn’t for the weakness of the other bowling options down under at that time, the left-armer would probably have never been seen again.
The pantomime villain of test cricket had enviable star quality through. Fireworks so often ensued when Johnson was steaming in from one end, or when he would walk to the wicket and throw the willow around like a madman with a chainsaw.
Johnson’s test bowling average of 28 and a strike rate of a feather over 50 is unquestionably impressive. Dennis Lillee knew he had seen a star when he scouted Johnson at the age of 17. However, Johnson’s turbulent career doesn’t compare to the true icons. He had spells of unplayable, hostile missiles, but his career was largely patchy. Most people would be happy to take over 300 career wickets and be ‘patchy’, but does he really deserve a seat in the precious test hall of fame alongside Lillee, Thompson or McGrath?
Clarke, on the other hand, did show a lot more consistency across his career before it was inevitably ended by back problems. Many of the truly brilliant players are taken away prematurely through injury, Andrew Flintoff the most notable of late.
The former Australian captain also gained plaudits for his captaincy. ‘Wacky’ fielding positions, aggressive team batting, or glorious swing bowling always seemed to be credited to Clarke. The contribution of individuals was often overlooked in an Aussie side that decimated England in 2013/14.
The last ember from Australia’s 2005 side, Clarke’s batting was at its metronomic best during 2012. During that calendar year, Clarke scored a double and triple hundred in one series, became the number one batsman in the world, and scored 1595 runs at an average that even Donald Bradman would envy.
As a captain, Clarke was attacking, inventive and bold, but the short-term success he enjoyed does not begin to rival the iconic captaincy of Steve Waugh or Allan Border. Ultimately, Clarke’s captaincy might have looked bold and extravagant when Mitchell Johnson was terrorising batsman, but he was still the man who led his country to consecutive Ashes defeats in England. Johnson’s erratic, fearmongering left-arm missiles were as integral to Clarke’s successes as captain as Clarke’s intelligent decision making or gambling on an extra slip could ever be.
It is unfortunate for Clarke that his atrocious final series as a captain and batsman ended his career on such a low ebb. Stuart Broad’s Trent Bridge massacre was the final nail in his Ashes coffin. If it wasn’t for his run of almost binary batting during that series, Clarke would have finished his career with a test average of over 50.
Overall Clarke, unlike Johnson, seldom won Ashes tests. Clarke sometimes built the foundations but his Ashes average of 41 was relatively modest. Although undoubtedly a run-machine at his best, the elegant blonde bombshell we saw in 2005 rarely lived up to the hype.
These two Australians, in contrast to the greats who preceded them, will not go down as true Aussie legends. Partly because of the comparative weakness of the sides they played in, partly down to their own frailties.
Johnson’s patchy record made him the ultimate hit and miss bowler. Meanwhile Clarke’s stellar batting record is not out of the ordinary in a generation when bat has dominated ball like never before.