26 May. Home.
Here on my bedroom floor are my possessions for the next four months of my life.
My main suitcase contains casual clothes, toiletries and two green Australian cricket helmets. I have three blue cricket coffins. Two hold my cricket clothing, either whites or yellows, and a third holds all my training gear: shirts, shorts, tracksuits. Another green cricket coffin has my first-class cricket gear – bats, gloves, pads and so on – and one-day gear, the main items duplicated in gold limited-overs colours. I have four pairs of runners, each for different purposes, and six pairs of spiked cricket boots travelling in shoeboxes. I have a rack of six Spartan cricket bats.
In another small bag I have some comfortable clothes to change into – we leave for the flight in our team suits – my passport, phone, sunglasses, keys, iPod mini and speaker, watch, personal toiletry items, notepads and reading material. In this bag are also some special items, such as a copy of Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams, and personal messages I’ve been given. Taped to the inside flap of this bag is a piece of paper that I keep as a constant reminder of my guiding principle. It comes from Mike Young, the former Australian fielding coach, and it says:
A professional is . . . One who competes against the challenges brought before him by others and is willing to test himself each and every day to be the best he can possibly be and not the best others feel he should be!
Also in that special bag are my baggy green cap and the green and gold pouch that all Australian Test cricketers receive. My pouch is embroidered ‘M.J. Clarke 389’, indicating that 388 men have played Test cricket for Australia before me. My blazer pocket is embroidered with the number ‘43’, signifying the number I hold in the line of Australian Test cricket captains since 1877. I’m travelling fairly light, but with more than a century of history.
27 May. Emirates flight to Dubai and London.
On the flight, I unwind quietly and take the time to think. In the nearly two months since we came back from India, thinking is something I’ve been doing a lot of.
The first part of the year definitely didn’t go to plan. I’d pictured a successful Test tour to India, a season in the Indian Premier League (IPL) with the Pune Warriors, and a good healthy build-up to this moment: my third Ashes tour, my first as Australian captain.
Instead, we lost the Tests in India 4–0. We had some well-publicised problems with team discipline. My back and right hamstring, which had been hurting for most of the Australian season, finally got the better of me in the last of those matches in India, which was shattering as I’d never missed a Test match through injury in my career. And then, as soon as I got home, I was hospitalised with a bout of gastroenteritis. Instead of playing IPL, I was getting over that gastro and driving two hours a day to and from my physio in Beecroft, in Sydney’s northern suburbs, from my home in Cronulla, to spend an hour and a half having a machine treating my back, combined with hands-on treatment.
Like I said: plenty of time to think.
I don’t accept the way we played in India. There’s a temptation to forget all about it – the past is the past and all that – but if you lose the way we lost, and don’t learn anything, you’ll never progress. What’s that saying: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? We are absolutely determined not to repeat that history in England.
For me, the road back starts with rehabilitating my personal fitness. The sessions with my physio, Steve, on his MedX machine I regard as ‘money in the bank’. I sit in position in the machine while it stretches me to full flexion and full extension. Every second I spend in there is strengthening me. The machine weighs too much to take around the world with me, so I have to make the most of it when I am home. We started off with daily sessions, gradually winding back to three days a week. The degenerative disc problem in my back has been with me since I was a teenager, and I know that batting and fielding for long periods aren’t the best thing for it – so making my back stronger, when I have the chance, is a matter of life and death for my career.
When I felt strong enough, I went down to Berrima in the Southern Highlands for my annual two-week ‘boot camp’ with fitness trainer Duncan Kerr, who I’ve known since I was 17. We did three sessions a day, starting early and ending late: a full mental and physical challenge. It’s extreme. I reckon I get six months worth of fitness in those two weeks – more money in the bank. In those hard and lonely hours, I’m not always thinking about cricket, but when I am, I’m thinking that no one out there, no one, is putting in this kind of preparation, and when I step onto the field at Trent Bridge on 10 July, I will know that no bowler will have encountered a batsman as physically fit as I’m going to make myself.
When I started out in Test cricket in 2004, some players didn’t take fitness quite this seriously. The Australian team had long moved on from beers and cigarettes at stumps, but there were only a few guys who treated batting as a full physical challenge requiring months of preparation. For me, a love of fitness was kind of in the blood. My sister Leanne used to do triathlons and is an aerobics instructor, and I’ve always loved the feeling of being fit. When I walk onto a ground to bat, in peak physical condition, it does wonders for my confidence. When you’re fit in your body, your mind stays clearer. Fatigue doesn’t play mental tricks on you. Ultimately, it’s the difference between playing that tired shot when you’ve been batting for two or three hours, and going on to bat for more than a day. It’s the difference between scoring 60 or 80, or a double-hundred.
On those drives to and from Steve’s, and on the runs in Berrima, my mind kept going back to the tour of India, where it was our batting that killed us. We had the best of the conditions, winning the toss and batting first in each Test match, but were never able to put 500 runs on the board. We batsmen have to take accountability for that. Individually, we all made starts, but we were hardly ever able to convert. At some point, our concentration slipped, and one mistake was fatal. We just didn’t have the endurance.
After my boot camp, I started spending three days a week, every Sunday through to Tuesday, at Cricket Australia’s Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. I began working on my batting again, and had some good chats with the other guys from the team who’d been coming to prepare. We all agreed that we needed to find out why we didn’t succeed in India, and to correct those shortcomings.
There’s no substitute for experience, and a lot of our team hadn’t played Test cricket in India. In our squad for England, only Brad Haddin, Shane Watson, Phillip Hughes, Peter Siddle and I will be backing up from the 2009 tour; and I’m the only one who’s enjoyed the great thrill of beating England in an Ashes series. We’re going to have to learn very quickly, and make the most of what we have picked up through One Day Internationals, Twenty20 and county stints in England. It’s partly for that reason that the selectors have gone for a more seasoned line-up this time, choosing Hadds as vice-captain and including Chris Rogers, who has scored something like 10,000 first-class runs in nearly a decade playing county cricket.
At the Centre of Excellence, we have been batting on wickets prepared to simulate all the many varieties of English conditions. The ball might swing and seam, but if they have a dry summer it might also turn a lot, as it did in the decider at The Oval in 2009. As batsmen, we have to be adaptable. We’ve been having a lot of conversations about how to find our own way to succeed, but there are some general principles. We have to be disciplined at the start of our innings, giving ourselves at least 20 balls to assess the conditions. If we get a start, we absolutely must cash in. This requires a mental adjustment. In Australia, generally the longer you bat the easier things get, because the conditions don’t change very much and you can take a few things for granted. In India and England, once you’ve been in for a while you can’t make assumptions about the bounce, the ball and the conditions staying the same. The ball may start spinning more, or it might reverse-swing. Conditions in the UK change radically depending on whether the sun’s out, or if it’s overcast. So we have to be ready for anything.
I’m confident we can do it. Watching how a few of the guys developed in India, finding a way to make runs and get their confidence back, has me quietly confident that we have some characters who can turn a little bit of experience into a lot of learning.
The bowlers have also been thinking about how they’ll adapt. At the Centre of Excellence, we’ve been working on pitching the new ball a half-metre fuller, to give it every chance to swing. We’re also sick of the heartbreak of taking a key wicket only to find the bowler has overstepped the crease by millimetres. So we’ve been out on the centre wicket at the Allan Border Field, the pacemen coming in off their full runs, practising with a zero-tolerance policy on front-foot no-balls. We’re not going to be defeated by these one-percenters, because in Test cricket they become the difference between winning and losing.
It was lapses in those one-percenters that led to the incident in India where four players were stood down from the Third Test match in Mohali. Attention was given to the so-called ‘homework’ assignment they missed – it was actually just a chance to offer some ideas on how we could improve – but the reality was that we’d been slipping back in a number of key areas for several months, and Mickey Arthur, as coach, chose that moment to draw a line in the sand. He had my full support, and I think the guys responded well.
Of course, a lot was said about Shane Watson being one of the four, and there was speculation about my relationship with Watto. These things tend to get beaten up beyond belief. You can have a difference of opinion about where to go for dinner one night – this guy wants to eat Japanese, the other wants Italian – and all of a sudden they’re not speaking to each other! With Shane and me, there’s never been a rift or a feud. We’re just two different people. In our preparation period, he’s had another dominant season in the IPL with the Rajasthan Royals, and I’ve had a few chats with him while he’s been over there. Shane rang me from India to inform me he was standing down as vice captain. If it frees his mind to pile up the runs and wickets, then I’m all for it.
We’re under no illusions about how hard this tour is going to be. England have won three of the last four Ashes series and regard themselves as favourites. That’s fine by me. We’re happy to go as underdogs. We will live and breathe cricket and challenge ourselves to become better players. If we do, we have a chance – a good chance – to prove a few people wrong, and when you win against the odds, nothing tastes sweeter. There will be a lot of things on the field that we can’t control, but when it comes to preparation, being ready to handle whatever comes my way, I personally will leave no stone unturned.
Excerpted from The Ashes Diary by Michael Clarke. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Clarke.
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