By Nick Friend
This Sunday sees Messrs Lineker, Balding and Hild Bede alumna Gabby Logan take the stage in Glasgow to present BBC Sport Personality of the Year 2014, and celebrate a hugely successful year of British sport.
Lewis Hamilton, Gareth Bale and Rory McIlroy will be lauded as three men at the very pinnacle of their sports. Lizzie Yarnold and Kelly Gallagher will be recognised for their historic hoodoo-breaking triumphs at Sochi. Max Whitlock and Adam Peaty – two of Britain’s most exciting young stars – will be paraded before our eyes. Charlotte Dujardin, Carl Froch and Jo Pavey will be acknowledged for their enduring excellence.
You’d be hard-pushed to look beyond McIlroy. A golfer with few – if any – flaws to his game. A model of consistency both on and off the course, the world’s best player has gone from strength to strength this year, winning both the Open at Hoylake and the USPGA title within a month. His performance in Europe’s hammering of the United States in the Ryder Cup swings the tide even further in his favour.
However, while we recognise the achievements of our sporting heroes in Glasgow, on the other side of the globe, Michael Clarke will be resting – Australia’s first Test against India having finished the previous day.
Clarke deserves his rest more than anyone could imagine. His actions in the last month have been churchillian in their influence on not just a nation, but the entire sporting world. Phil Hughes’ tragic death would have broken many a team, many a sport, many a leader. Clarke has stood firm, though, ensuring that Australia, the game of cricket and Clarke himself can move on and play on in tribute to his teammate.
If his actions in the immediate aftermath shone of leadership and compassion, his knock against an erratic Indian bowling attack oozed class and sheer mental strength. Even without the tragic events at the SCG, Clarke had issues. A hamstring injury nearly ruled him out of the Test, and a back injury sustained when unbeaten on 60 forced the captain to retire hurt late in the day.
Yet, such is the strength of this gargantuan leader, he returned the next morning. His hundredth run was celebrated all around the globe. Even the Indians would struggle to begrudge this most courageous leader of his moment. Clarke knew the moment’s significance. The world was watching, waiting to see his reaction. David Warner, the previous day, let rip an outpouring of sheer raw passion, needing a good few minutes to compose himself.
Clarke showed the way to his teammates. He was understated. Anybody that had seen his eulogy at Hughes’ funeral or his press conference knew the levels of devastation felt by Clarke. To be able to harness all of that for the good of a team and a country shows enormous inner strength. It is often said that it is easy to speak well of the deceased. Clarke cannot be accused of that. He was at Hughes’ bedside for two days following the original incident, having flown into Sydney to be with Hughes’ family.
It seems almost inconceivable now that upon taking the captaincy in 2011, he was deemed by Australian newspapers as “Mr Unpopular.” One fan tweeted at the time that he would “never support an Australian side with Michael Clarke as captain.” How foolish these naysayers look now. Clarke has taken his side to number one in the world and is showing leadership to rival Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting before him.
Indeed, his words in The Herald Sun to Sean Abbott, the second ‘unlucky’ victim in this horrific tragedy, speak volumes for the quality of man that he has become.
“Sean, when you feel like getting back on the horse mate, I promise you that I’ll be the first to strap on the pads and go stand at the other end of the net to hit them back at you. It’s exactly what Hugh Dog would want us both to do.”
Ultimately, it was Clarke’s Australian team that humiliated England and, in so doing, saw off former scourges Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Swann. Then, he masterminded his side to victory in South Africa, pushing the legendary Graeme Smith into retirement in the process.
It is not for his achievements that he stands apart. In a country where cricket is more than simply a sport, Michael Clarke mourned for the nation, he spoke for a nation. Now, in the most unfair of circumstances, he has galvanised nation. For these three reasons, he is my Sports Personality of the Year.