In the aftermath of one of the biggest media storms any Australian sportsman has ever faced, Michael Clarke talks exclusively to GQ. With a momentous chapter of his life now closed, he’s stronger, more focused and determined to be remembered not for his personal life but as a man who chased — and achieved — his dreams.
Nudging open the sliding door, I find myself in the cupboard-size reception of a Sydney motel, furnished with a plastic chair and a murky fish tank. “First floor,” grunts the old man behind the front desk, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the stairwell. I climb slowly, tiptoeing around threadbare patches in the carpet, and make my way along the dark, dank corridor. The smell is hard to place but its top notes hover between in-flight food and well-used running shoes.
This, I suspect, is not at all the sort of accommodation Michael Clarke is used to, but it’s perfect for the grungy look GQ’s creative team are after for today’s shoot. “Apparently, you can book rooms by the hour,” Clarke says, eyes wide with disbelief, registering my reluctance to take a seat on the shabby sofa. He surveys the surrounds to the soundtrack of the traffic roar coming through the window: dishevelled sheets heaped on a single bed; a dusty metal heater hanging high on the wall; a ’70s dressing table in flaking faux wood. “I think I’d rather sleep outside.”
Pin-neat in smart trousers, tucked into boots buffed to a military-grade shine, Clarke couldn’t look more out of place. His newly shorn hair only adds to that; it’s been given a very precise grade 2 on top, grade 1 around the sides, ahead of the one-day internationals in England and Ireland he’ll soon be flying off to. “It’s only getting shorter, the greyer it gets,” he observes, running a hand across the top. It seems he’s not ready for silver fox status just yet, and I can’t help wondering if Clarke is reluctant to relinquish his eager young ‘pup’ image. “When I’m 35, sure. But not when you’re 29.”
Clarke has copped plenty of flak for the interest he takes in his appearance (dressing well clearly being far too big a challenge not to cause endless distraction for your typical sportsman). But today, he’s revelling in it. “For me, it’s a different world,” he says, keen to make it clear he’s not normally a clothes horse. “I’m a cricketer, this is not what I do. But it’s enjoyable.”
He’s come along today fully clued up on what to expect, which is the way he prefers to operate. Knowing the photoshoot was scheduled for a 9am kick-off, he got up early, went for a 45-minute run with his four-year old Staffy, Jerry, and made sure he was here by 8:45. “I’m a very organised guy,” he says. “I always know in advance what I’ve got coming up. Preparation’s important to me—it helps my performance. I’m never late.” There’s a pause and, just in case it may not have been sufficiently clear the first time, he repeats: “I’m never late.” Understood.
His intensity is surprising. And even when he’s not fixing you with that stare, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. It may not, as Clarke points out, be what he does for a living, but he does it very well. With his lean physique, defined jaw line and deadpan expression, he’s so believably model-like that the photographer and GQ team have called a mini fashion conference to discuss the fact he’s not smiling enough. “I’m happy,” he protests. “I might not look it, but I’m happy.”
You can understand why that may well be true. A talented middle-order batsman and left-arm spin bowler, he’s captain of the Australian Twenty20 team and vice-captain of the Test team. He was the leading run scorer in last year’s Ashes and has twice won the Allan Border medal. With a house in Bondi thanks, in part, to the wedge of pocket money coming in regularly from sponsors such as Bonds, Milo, Slazenger, Gillette and Vodafone, he’s onto what you might call a good wicket.
There’s no doubt Clarke’s good at what he does. The only question yet to be answered is whether he’s good enough to go down in history as one of Australia’s best cricketers ever. The crew breaks for lunch, but Michael’s not tucking in yet, preferring to wait until his final shot is done. Face to face, he’s warm, engaging and can talk a hind leg off a donkey, snatching a quick breath when absolutely necessary before ploughing on. Much of his patter revolves around three passionate topics: the invaluable support of his family and friends; the outstanding qualities of his sponsors; the notion of cricket as the best sport ever to have been invented in the history of the universe. It’s the kind of talk you expect from any media-savvy professional athlete.
Encouragingly, there’s plenty more beyond that, if you make the time to push past the protective force field of sporting cliché.
Not that it’s entirely surprising that he might want to create such a barrier. The pressure of success today is quite different to what it would have been for the players Clarke looked up to as a kid. It’s evolved into something far bigger. “And that’s in every possible way,” Clarke says. “From the amount of time the cameras are on you, to the publicity off the field, the income for players, the amount of time we’re away from home.”
He’s philosophical about it all, insisting very convincingly that all those changes have been for the good of the game. And, when it comes down to it, the game is what it’s all about for him. “Cricket is first and foremost,” he says, leaning forward to push the point. “It always has been, and I’m not willing to interfere with that. If I need to train, or start batting, that’s number one for the day, and if I have something else to do, with a sponsor, or something like that, I fit it in around my training.”
Being good enough to play for his country is his priority. And, let’s not forget, that’s not a given. In among the peaks when he’s been tipped to be Ricky Ponting’s successor, there have been troughs deep enough for critics to describe him as Australia’s most overrated cricketer. Clarke, better than anyone, knows that what the selectors giveth, they can just as quickly take away. He launches into the story about how he dealt with being dropped from the Australian Test team in 2005.
“I went to my mum and dad’s place and was in shock to the point of tears,” says Clarke. “I cried myself to sleep it was that bad. The next day Dad pulls me up and says, ‘Mate, this can go one of two ways. You can stay here or you can get back into training tomorrow morning and you will get yourself back in the team.'” Four days later Clarke scored 200 runs against Queensland for the New South Wales team. “I’ve had career challenges,” he adds, “but they’ve taught me to be even more determined.”
Back in the present, having recently been beaten by England in the final of the Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies, he’s facing yet another morale-sapping challenge, with Chairman of Selectors Andrew Hilditch admitting at the end of May that he’d hoped for more from the team captain’s batting.
“I want to get better at that form of the game,” responds Clarke. “I’ll just work harder.” And you believe him. He’s nearing the end of a two-week break at home in Sydney, but where others might have kicked back, he’s maintained his focus. “I don’t give my body the chance to stop and do nothing, just in case it likes it too much,” he says, with a smile. “I train five days a week, minimum once a day. Right now, I’m doing a bit of cardio and getting some strength back, because when we’re away, there’s so much cricket you can lose a bit of fitness.”
Alongside his cricketing commitments, Clarke also has responsibilities to his sponsors. During a quick outfit change, I’m pleased to see he really does wear the Bonds underwear he spruiks, having chosen for today a pair of striped trunks so jaunty they could have come from a clown’s dress-up box. It’s refreshing to find someone who only talks up what they believe in. “I’ve been very selective,” he says. “You could sign with many companies, but the brands I’m associated with are brands I’ve been able to relate to my whole life.”
Regardless, it must feel odd when, during an evening at home in front of the TV, the program cuts to a commercial in which he’s cavorting around a tennis court in the briefest of underpants. “It’s embarrassing!” he chuckles. “I’m turning it off straight away, and I’m not giving anyone the remote control. My mates always take the piss out of me about that stuff.”
One can only assume the ribbing is worth what he’s paid for it, though given how short even the longest athletic career is, you can hardly begrudge him making hay while the sun shines. Does it mean he’s financially care-free? “I think everyone worries about money,” he shrugs. “I have a beautiful house, and I really want to pay that off. That’s the same dream most people have.”
In the current climate, the topic of sporting role models is a vexed one. Many people believe it’s unfair that top athletes are elevated to superhuman status, and expected to uphold (or at least pay lip service to) moral standards few of we commoners manage ourselves. On the flipside, there’s the argument that with the privileges of celebrity comes responsibility. Clarke is clear about which side of the fence he’s on. “Knowing people — kids — are looking up to me probably helps me,” he says, finally sitting down to his chicken salad, now dressed in his own hoodie and a pair of gleaming white trainers. “When I’m at the cricket, I feel so bad if I say no to anybody who wants an autograph, because that one kid doesn’t know you’ve signed a thousand before him. He just misses out. So I try to do as much as I can.
“It helps you become a better person, and I certainly don’t see that as a chore. I know when I was a kid, I looked up to so many cricketers, and the way they presented themselves on and off the field was so important to me. That’s part of your responsibility.”
Why then, I wonder out loud, are there so many sportsmen who aren’t up to meeting that challenge? His response is instant and pointed. “I think so many sportsmen are.” We pause, locked in something of a stand-off. He puts down his fork. “I think, without a doubt, we’re very lucky to have so many great athletes that are amazing role models.”
So what about the drunken brawls, sex scandals and salary cap-violating backhanders that are constantly splashed across the front pages? “I think we probably hear about the people that make mistakes along the way, but I don’t think we hear enough about the sports people who do so much for the community, for the country and for their game.”
While we’re on the subject, I’m keen to get his take on Tiger Woods — a fellow face of Gillette, though one who’s simmering on a back burner for the time being. He seemed to have it all. “Yeah,” says Clarke quietly, looking away to gather his thoughts before speaking carefully. “And as a golfer, I don’t think anybody can ever take away what he’s done for that game. His personal life is his personal life, and people will make comment on that. But he should always be respected as…well, the greatest golfer I’ve ever seen, and one of the greatest of all time.”
And here we find ourselves in slightly uncomfortable territory. It’s been barely 10 minutes since he volunteered that, as a young boy growing up in Sydney’s south-western suburbs, his idols’ behaviour – both in and out of work time – was important to him. But as his own personal life begins to come into focus on the conversational horizon, I sense him trying to back away. “What’s fame?” he ponders. “Being in the paper? Going to a bar, and people knowing who you are? I don’t think anybody starts out looking for that. For me, all I wanted to be was the best cricketer I could be. If that means getting well known along the way, then that’s what you have to expect as part of the territory.”
Well known? He certainly is, and there’s no doubt that what made him a celebrity outside of sporting circles was his relationship with Lara Bingle, bikini model and former face of Tourism Australia. After all, it’s a scientific fact that when two stars come together, a kind of fame supernova occurs in the media firmament, culminating in an end product that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Pairing up in 2006, it wasn’t long before Clarke and Bingle were being heralded as Australia’s David and Victoria Beckham (Clarke finds that comparison particularly odious), and everything seemed to be proceeding nicely when they got engaged two years later.
Clarke is understandably reluctant to get into the particulars of how his and Bingle’s engagement ended in March of this year. What most of Australia witnessed in the lead-up was Bingle becoming embroiled in a major media frenzy that got ever-more fervent as the weeks passed.
Clarke was over in New Zealand playing with the Australian Test team when Bingle’s story broke. He came home mid-tournament, for “personal reasons” and at 10pm on March 12 the couple’s split was announced via a brief statement from Clarke’s management.
The story had everything: big names, nudity, betrayal and — crucially — mystery. Because, despite Bingle’s tendency to reveal all, Clarke has always been far happier to keep quiet. “Going through the break-up was hard,” is all he’ll volunteer when I raise the matter.
Does he think it was made harder by all the media attention? “I guess. I don’t know, because I wasn’t on the outside. I was in there, working through it. I didn’t get to see how other people saw it. The truth is, I just don’t understand the interest,” he says, clearly agitated.
But there was no stopping it. Certain media pundits went so far as to suggest Clarke’s decision to return from tour to end the relationship was a matter of national significance. For some old-school blowhards, abandoning one’s teammates for something as frivolous as ending a relationship with your fiancée face-to-face was tantamount to high treason, and further evidence of the sorry state of young Australian manhood.
“My decision that I made there, was what I thought was right,” says Clarke, fidgeting in his chair. “I respect playing for my country that much that I thought, if I’m going to let anybody down, I shouldn’t be here — there’s somebody else who could be doing a better job than me. Going home was the right decision at the time for me. I don’t regret that decision.”
There were, of course, many who believed he behaved the way any decent man might be expected to. That it was only natural he be affected by what was going on in his private life. In plenty of columns, the argument was made that he’d done the right thing. “I didn’t see those bits,” says Clarke with a wry laugh.
One notable supporter was Kate Ellis, Federal Sport Minister. She proclaimed he’d done “the responsible thing” and told the Sydney Morning Herald, “We need to recognise that our role models, whether they [are] sporting heroes or the like, they are human beings and have lives at the same time.’”
The man who was closest to Clarke throughout this time is his manager of five years, Chris White. “It was a very intense week,” he says, “something very out of the ordinary. Under extreme circumstances Michael handled the situation to the best of his ability, keeping in mind the responsibilities to the team as well as his private emotions. His dedication to his career and his determination to seek balance in his life, has and always will be his priority. It’s easy to judge, but knowing him the way I do, I respect him for his form and approach to the situation during the events that transpired.”
Contrary to what people might expect from what seemed a messy break-up, he and Bingle have kept in touch. “We still get on well,” he says. “We’ll always be good friends.”
And the engagement ring? “I can guarantee you it was never flushed down the toilet.” But what about the news reports of plumbers being called to search for it in the sewer? “That’s another one of those brilliant rumours. The ring is in a very safe place.”
A few months down the track, Clarke is clearly keen to put it all behind him. “That chapter’s closed,” he says, firmly. “I don’t see any point in looking backwards.” Clarke’s diplomacy, self-control and refusal to be drawn into a celebrity slanging match are impressive. The same goes for his unwillingness to wallow in self-pity, at a time when many, having just witnessed the dream of their fairytale marriage go up in a puff of smoke, would. He’s quick to credit his parents with the resilience that’s made him what he is today. “As my old man would say, ‘Find a positive. There’s always someone worse off than you.’ And not a truer word spoken.”
In fact, talk to him about the highs and lows of his life, and although the Bingle break-up certainly registers, the time he considers his hardest was when his dad was diagnosed with cancer. Clarke was in the West Indies for the 2007 Cricket World Cup when his sister, Leanne, called to break the news. “I’ve always been really close to my dad — he’s my best friend as well, which made it so hard because I felt I wasn’t there for him. I couldn’t really help,” he says. “Getting home from that tour was pretty emotional.”
His father’s illness was a key reason he didn’t join his Australian team mates on the lucrative Indian Premier League circuit the following winter, staying home instead to spend some quality time at the family home. Three years on from the diagnosis, things are looking good. “He’s in remission, and back working,” reports Clarke. “He’s loving life.”
Family, it’s clear, is a huge priority, even when he’s away on tour. “I have, in my eyes, the greatest family ever. If I went a week without speaking to them, they’d be on a plane to give me a clip round the ear,” he says, adding that he’s always wished there were more of them. “I’d like a brother. And another three sisters. I used to ask my parents all the time.”
I can’t help thinking that, a year ago, when he was engaged to be married, thoughts of starting his own family must have been front of mind. In a parallel universe where he didn’t become a cricketer, Clarke could see himself teaching at primary school. “Being with Milo, I get the opportunity to help so many kids trying to play cricket — boys and girls — and they’re just so cute, running around, having a ball. I’ve always loved kids,” he enthuses, pondering the notion of fatherhood.
“But even though I like to plan things, some things in life you have to wait to come to you. I’m obviously not in that space at the moment,” he laughs. “But there’ll be a time and place for that, and I look forward to that day.”
With the photographer and crew having lugged their equipment home a good while ago, we decide to call it a day too. The sun’s low now, and the air has turned cold and damp in our dingy roadside motel. Clarke straps his backpack on his shoulders, and heads back into his real life, where the first order of business is a session at the gym.
A week later, we catch up on the phone. Clarke’s in a hotel in Manchester, preparing for Australia’s next one-day international against England. There’s no match today, but he’s up early and ready for training, having just finished a bowl of Special K followed by two poached eggs on wholemeal toast.
Being on tour is a part of life for elite sportsmen, and it’s mostly an unglamorous, lonely and draining lifestyle. In recent times, Clarke has been away, either overseas or interstate, for up to 10 months every year, which has led to the notion of ‘home’ taking on great importance. “Being home feels like a holiday,” he says, wistfully. “Your own bed, your own shower, being able to have your mates around for a few beers — when you’re away, that’s what you look forward to. And I don’t think there’s anything better than a home-cooked meal from your parents.”
He’s a foodie, whether or not it’s served up by Mum. “That’s one of the advantages of travelling the world, because I love trying new foods from different cultures. I enjoy that part of my life.” Aside from that, he likes to spend his free time watching movies and playing with his dog. His biggest fears are heights and failing to pay bills on time. Leaving aside his sporting ability, he’s not much different to anyone else you might meet, which is part of the reason he’s baffled by all the attention devoted to his private life. Anthony Bell, a close friend of Clarke’s, says, “I can understand that sometimes his life is portrayed with glitz and glamour. But his life is normal. Michael’s most comfortable sitting on his lounge with his mates watching Wests Tigers play, in his Ugg boots.”
It’s a delightful image, and I wonder if he packed those Uggs for the tour of England. Australia had mixed results while over there and, in spite of his upbeat disposition, Clarke admits losing is never easy. “I feel the disappointment, and if it’s a big tournament, that can last for a while,” he says. “The last Ashes in England… I won’t forget what losing that felt like. Those are memories that stay with you forever. But one thing that’s important for me is to understand that it’s just a game, that you didn’t go out there planning to lose. We can try our best and prepare well and do everything we can, but sometimes you get beaten by the better team on the day. You need to get over it as quick as possible, and look forward to the next opportunity.”
Is it hard to deal with the public criticism that comes with playing for your country? “Not if you don’t perform well,” he says, pragmatically. “If your performances aren’t as good as they should be, then you’re going to cop some criticism. You have to accept that.” Which brings us to the question of: where to now for Michael Clarke?
“Well it goes without saying,” he says in reference to the upcoming Ashes series, “we want revenge.” Not that he’s expecting it to be easily won. “We’re facing an England team with a lot of confidence and momentum but playing in Australia, in front of Australian fans, is incredible. It’s what I grew up dreaming about. They give us the extra incentive to do well.” But what about the long-term future? Clarke’s reluctant to big note himself, but there are others who aren’t so hesitant.
“I think Michael’s a born leader,” says teammate Brad Haddin, who started his cricket career around the same time. “He’s got a good understanding of people and he’s very well equipped to deal with different personalities. He’s also a good decision maker. A lot of people have to work hard at being a leader, but all those skills come naturally to him.” Former Test captain Mark Taylor also sings his praises, agreeing that Clarke has what it takes to do his old job. “Oh, no doubt. I’m sure he has that ability, as I think we’ve seen in recent times with the Twenty20 World Cup. People were disappointed that we lost the final, but that’s been our best campaign in Twenty20 since it was started. I think Michael can be proud of that.”
Weighing up the differences between today’s sporting scene, and the way things were in 1994 when he took over from Allan Border, Taylor doesn’t envy Clarke the scrutiny that comes with the modern, 24/7 media cycle. “Back then there wasn’t as much speculation about who would be the next captain, and those sorts of things,” he says. “These days, with the extra scrutiny on the players, people examine those issues much more closely than they ever did. Michael — or any vice-captain — only has to say something that’s construed as not quite right, and straight away he’s coveting the job, or he’s looking to try and force someone out of the position. We look for things that aren’t necessarily there. That must be hard on any player in waiting.”
It’s not surprising then that Clarke has learned to bat away questions on the issue. “You know what, I just want Australia to be the best team we can possibly be, and I want to be part of that team, and where I play doesn’t bother me,” he tells me. “To me, you definitely don’t need a ‘C’ or a ‘VC’ tag beside your name to be a leader in a good sporting team. It’s more a case of becoming a senior player and taking more responsibility in helping the team get the best out of each other.”
It will be interesting to watch where that potent combination of diplomacy and determination takes him, and how he handles the next stage in his life. Either way, he’s clearly a man who knows what he wants, and has every intention of getting it. This evening, for example, he’ll be ordering room service and watching a movie from the comfort of his king size bed, before getting eight hours sleep ahead of tomorrow’s game at Old Trafford. Essentially, he’ll be doing his best to recreate the comforts of home in a faraway city.
As to whether he’ll be elevated into the pantheon of legendary cricketers, well, the boy from Sydney’s hardscrabble outer suburbs will leave that to others to determine. “This isn’t a practice run,” he muses. “And when my time comes, I just want to be remembered as a kid who chased his dreams as hard as he could, and succeeded.”