Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Clarke's latest problem: Generation Y

Rumours of a sudden challenge to the Crown Prince's ascendance to the throne are greatly exaggerated. Or perhaps not. What is certain though is that Michael Clarke isn't the popular figure in the Australian dressing room that he was two years ago, fuelled by allegations that senior teammates disliked his criticism of Mike Hussey and Doug Bollinger for playing in the IPL. His recent lack of results as captain are also a problem: results, they say, are the ultimate leveller.

Anointed from an early age as Australia's next captain, Clarke's commitment to bettering himself and in securing results for Australian cricket cannot be questioned. He's sacrificed a lot for his cricket and has been rewarded handsomely with money, status and with fan adulation. But still he does not convince as a leader of men. The reason for this disharmony may not come however from his inability as a tactician, his skill level or even his temperament. It may come from his birthdate. Michael Clarke is the first of a new generation of Australian cricketers - The Generation Y leader.

Clarke was born in 1981, placing him firmly in Generation Y's catchment years. He's completely dedicated to being the Australia captain and has been since he was prepubescent. He made his debut at a young age (23) before experiencing a mix of success and failure at the top level. To counter the failures and achieve his goals he's gradually removed elements of his batting making him now a pale shadow of the youngster who made such a loud - and watchable - debut in 2004. He's ultimately dedicated to his craft. What do we know about Michael Clarke apart from his status as an Australian cricketer? That he owns and loves a Z3 roadster and that he dated and nearly married Bingle. It is eminently possible that he is, and let's be fair, the most boring man on the planet. That's it - there doesn't seem to be a lot more to the bloke.

To compare the Generations in cricket is interesting. Take for example the Australian side from now and from eight years ago. The squad from 2002 sported players who expressed themselves through their performances and loved doing it. Langer was combative while Hayden was dominating. Waugh was tough and Warne loved the spotlight. Now compare those guys and those characteristics with our current Australian team. How would you describe Simon Katich? A hard worker? Shane Watson overcomes obstacles. Michael Clarke is dedicated. Nathan Hauritz defines pedestrian in every sense of the word. Do you see differing personalities in the Aussie dressing room? Obviously I don't - I've just used three synonyms to define three different guys.

It's because it takes so long for cricketers to ascend to leadership roles that we've not seen this before now. In almost any other sport, players in their early 20s can be on- and off-field leaders: take a look at the AFL, the Rugby twins Union and League, Basketball, football - you name it. There are rites-of-passage that a cricket captain must endure that don't exist in other sports. Clarke's the first of his generation to undergo these rites and he won't be the last. He dealt with these demands, passed them even, and probably feels a sense of entitlement to the throne. But as I posited here last week, he's dealt with them in an inward-looking manner rather than by shifting his focus to the outward. You can see him thinking Deal with the controllable elements, Pup and for him, the controllable elements are his own form and results. Single-minded dedication isn't a sin but it is easily mistakable for selfishness.

Since the Packer Revolution thirty-three years ago, the sport has become more and more professional. It is only now though that the side is made up by a majority of cricketers who know the game only as it is now: a fully professional sport which takes an awful lot to get to the top. Pup wants the captaincy so he is prepared to sacrifice and work until he achieves it. He is, like many products of Generation Y,: driven by task, process and achievement rather than by people or relationships. Ultimately, however, the best captains - the best leaders, in general - have solid a footing in both camps.

Though a mediocre Test batsman, Mike Brearley was often said to have had "a degree in people". Allan Border knew exactly what to say to a player in order to provoke the desired response: witness his "Let's get a real Australian out here, let's get a Queenslander" moment to Dean Jones during Deano's 210 at Madras in 1986. That speech followed a pre-game pep talk that left Jones feeling "ten feet tall" at the responsibility with which his captain had just entrusted him. Mark Taylor had an incredible ability to handle players, media and administrators alike. Clarke's most famous moments in the dressing room include being grabbed around the throat, leaving the team to deal with Bingle's inevitable self-implosion and now rumours that he's not suited to the job because he tacitly accused two devoted players of valuing money over country.

Michael Clarke was both bred and trained to play for Australia. As a result of this he will do nothing to jeopardise that position. Example: Why are his press conferences so dull? They're boring because he talks in management-speak and refuses to say anything that's not completely safe. Having a manager since his mid-teens, Clarke knows his commercial value - and that's only fair. The brand must be protected. It smacks of someone who knows all he desires is within his grasp and now fears losing it rather than going out and winning it. In soccer parlance, he's defending a lead. He takes himself exceedingly seriously.

This is not his fault of course - he can't help the times in which he's grown up. It's just another obstacle that he needs to clear. But in a position of maximum public exposure time will only prove that he is what he is: a child of his times focused with "eyes on the prize" to the exclusion of all else, a learned behaviour over his 29 years which is going to take a titanic effort of will and learning to overcome. We've seen in before of our sports stars: refusing to give ammunition, talking only of processes and one-day-at-a-time. He is a product of his generation - the famous friends that every celebrity must have, the endorsements, the celebrity hookups, the Premiere appearances - and those of us who remember past generations don't respond well to it even though we've played a major role in the development of this mindset.

Ultimately, we must point the finger of blame for Michael Clarke's inability to effectively man-manage straight at ourselves. We as a nation have valued results to the point where we now define ourselves by our ability to generate sporting results. Some time ago results became more important than the love of the game and the next generation reflect this. This is Australia's sporting world from now on: we valued first sport for it's own sake and this transitioned into sport for sake of results, and we've done this to the extent that to get to the top a player is forced to adhere to rules from such an early age that it becomes ingrained. We love Aussies who get results too much. For better or worse, we love them so much that we've bred or trained much of the individualism and the joie de vivre out of them.

This is the future of sports: bland players who value their positions (as they should) and value what those positions can bring them. The message of any future captain will remain the same until we make a cultural shift as to what we value. The way in which that message is delivered may change: where Michael Clarke is earnest with the media, his "rivals" North and Cameron White are affable. As we leave behind a Generation X whose very raison d'etre was to succeed through expressing themselves in everything they did, we embrace a generation who want only to succeed. If that's a good thing or not is up to you.

Welcome to the future, Australia. These are your children.

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