EXCLUSIVE: Andrew Ramsey gets the untold story behind the Australia skipper's courageous Cape Town ton. Story and video here.
Dawn remained more than an hour from breaking over Cape Town and Table Mountain was but a trapezoidal silhouette against a brooding night sky when Alex Kountouris entered his makeshift workplace to be greeted by a ghostly apparition.
Nauseous, sleep-deprived and tortured by pain, Michael Clarke had sought out his trusted physiotherapist in the Australian team room well before the hotel’s breakfast shift staff had clocked on because he also had a day’s work to attend to.
Five and a half hours later Clarke would be fighting for his country, facing up to the fast bowling attack that spearheaded the world’s top-ranked Test team – including the bloke who had mercilessly pummelled him a day earlier – in pursuit of a win that would secure the series and define his captaincy.
But first, he needed help to fight the effects of a night bereft of sleep, to numb the throbbing from his left forearm that was feared broken when he copped the first blow.
From the right thumb on which the nail was smashed and bloodied.
From the point of his left shoulder that had borne the initial brunt of the most serious hit from a rock-hard ball travelling at almost 150km/h, and the underside of his jaw that became the secondary point of contact.
South African players check on Clarke after being struck by another Morne Morkel delivery.(Getty Images)
Among the sprawl of surplus cricket gear, sports drinks and medical supplies that demarcate a touring cricket team’s private sanctuary while on the road, Clarke confided he wasn’t sure he’d be able to resume his innings later in the morning though he wasn’t able to pinpoint which of his ailments was most likely to prevent him.
All he could focus on was quelling the pain, and perhaps catching a bit of shut eye.
As a fresh set of ice packs were readied to be rotated among the sore spots – on thumb and shoulder, then forearm and jaw – the pair discussed anaesthetic options.
Hospital-grade drip-fed pain relief is not an option for athletes, so Clarke and his medical team had to make do with what was available at the hotel when the squad arrived back there from Newlands and the captain gingerly planted himself in the team room, where he took a light dinner.
The pain killers that a sportsperson can take with impunity during competition had been administered in volumes that lessened the agony but rendered him unwell, and the prospect of longer term options ran the risk of impairing his ability to perform his job later in the day.
He was, after all, figuratively unbeaten on 92 when the game’s first day had ended.
His team held the upper hand, and needed to drive home that advantage.
He had a Test match to win.
As daylight edged closer, it was agreed that ice and rest presented the best options of getting the skipper back out there to face more of what had put him in this predicament.
“The best thing I can do for you here is to have you stay here - I’ll turn the lights off and you can have a sleep,” Kountouris told Clarke as the wounded captain lay on the physio’s massage bench trying to find a position of comparative comfort.
“No, no, I’ll be right,” Clarke reassured him.
“I’ll just lay here for a while.”
By the time Kountouris flicked off the lights and quietly locked the door to prevent any early riser teammates from bursting in, the captain had lapsed into sleep.
Shane Warne was full of praise for the Australia captain at the close of play on day one.
AS history invariably bears testament, the war in which Clarke found himself was sparked by an incidental skirmish.
Midway through the first day of the final Test at Newlands that would decide the deadlocked series and, notionally, the title of world’s premier team, the Australians were building on a prosperous start after Clarke won the toss and batted on a benign pitch.
The skipper was getting into stride and opener David Warner had just posted another decisive century when South Africa’s strike bowler Dale Steyn limped from the field with a strained hamstring after delivering the first ball of his 11th over.
Down a bowler, behind in the game, their proud record as number one Test team in the balance, Clarke’s rival captain Graeme Smith – eyeing a gilded finale to a celebrated career in front of his adopted home crowd – turned to his 196cm fast bowler Morne Morkel to stem Australia’s advance.
The towering seamer had been the only bowler able to squeeze anything from the flat surface on a cloudless day and, after the first three deliveries to complete Steyn’s unfinished over, he switched his attack on Clarke to around the wicket and the strategy became obvious.
Clarke’s perceived vulnerability against short-pitched bowling would be exploited with a field purpose set to catch him out if he mishit an attacking stroke or misjudged a self-defensive prod.
“I think there’s two choices, when someone is bowling quite fast and you don’t feel like you can score off them,” Clarke told cricket.com.au.
“You either take a risk – a big risk for me anyway - to try and score, and that was because Morne Morkel was bowling around the wicket and short at me so I would have had to either step away and cut it, and they had a third man (in place).
“Or try and take on the pull and hook shot, and they had two guys out (on the leg side boundary).
“So it was either take maximum risk or accept I was going to cop a few.”
The first of those few landed at the end of that over, as Morkel zeroed in on Clarke’s torso with a ball pitched too full to duck and which followed him across the crease, leaving him with few options but have it strike him in the unprotected ribs and then nestle into the crook of his left arm.
The third delivery of Morkel’s next over was even more hostile, fired in at the already tender rib cage prompting Clarke to brace and the ball to crack him flush on the forearm as it braced instinctively for protection.
The Australian dressing room immediately feared the worst, and when Kountouris completed the first of what were to become regular dashes to the middle his concerns were hardly eased.
“Batters get hit like that on the forearm all the time and it’s either on the fleshy part when they get away with a bruise, or on the bone when there’s a reasonable chance it breaks,” Kountouris said.
“So it’s usually an easy diagnosis - if it’s a bruise, it’s sore but they can still grip bat but if it’s broken arm they can’t manage any grip and they’re off the ground fairly quickly.
“Michael’s arm was swollen enough to be broken, tender enough to be broken, and he was struggling to grip – all the signs that really worried me, but he was keen to keep going so we kept him out there.”
Team physio Alex Kountouris checks on Clarke during the brutal spell from Morkel. (Getty Images)
Kountouris and team doctor Peter Brukner watched Clarke intently for the remainder of the over, not convinced they weren’t dealing with a fracture.
No sooner were they sensing he might be okay than he copped one directly on the right thumb, Brukner’s inspection revealing bleeding from the nail and a further reduced capacity to grip the bat, this time with his bottom hand.
Midway through Morkel’s third over they were out of their seats again and even more worried, as the bowler banged it in harder and Clarke turned his head in a vain attempt to escape the ball’s path and was struck under the jaw, a blow that saw him stagger two steps and drop to one knee.
As he raced back out, Kountouris’s mind turned to the final match of Australia’s 2006 tour of South Africa when opener Justin Langer – playing his 100th Test – wore the first ball of the game from Makhaya Ntini behind his right ear and crumpled in similar fashion.
After a lengthy examination, Langer pronounced he was right to continue batting at which point his legs buckled beneath him and he was helped from the ground. He spent the next three days in a darkened hotel room with severe concussion and took no further part in the Test.
Having checked for confirmation his jaw wasn’t broken, Kountouris and Brukner then attempted to ascertain Clarke’s level of awareness by going through the initial procedures of a standard concussion test.
Their belief that the skipper had suffered some sort of head trauma and was disorientated were heightened by the fact that, despite being hit on the side of the head, he kept complaining about the pain he was experiencing in his left shoulder.
“Okay, so your shoulder’s hurting but how’s your head?” Kountouris asked as frustration among all parties began to mount.
“Have you got a headache? Do you know where you are? Can you tell me today’s date?”
“I know where I am,” Clarke shot back “but my shoulder’s killing me.”
Kountouris recalled: “At the time, we didn’t realise it had hit him on the shoulder first and then ricocheted into his head, which is where our attention was focused because it’s the more fragile part.
“So all my questions were geared around checking for concussion but that’s not what he wanted to discuss – I kept thinking ‘we’re not talking about your shoulder here, you just got hit in the head’.
It was long after Clarke saw off Morkel’s spell and posted a matchwinning century, well after he bowled five overs of left-arm spin on the final day then accepted the series trophy, and after he returned to Australia and underwent an x-ray that he was diagnosed with a fractured left shoulder.
It provided a graphic footnote to a story that had already taken on folkloric status.
“All of a sudden I’m a tough player – it’s taken me 12 years,” Clarke says in mock surprise when he’s asked how that innings, that ended when rain prematurely ended the second day and with 161no beside his name, has reshaped public perception of his courage and character.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely grateful that people – if it takes one incident or takes me to score a hundred like that - realise how much I value playing cricket for Australia.
“But in my own mind I feel like I’ve earned that respect a long time ago.”
It was the captain's 27th Test century. (Getty Images)
CLARKE was woken from his brief slumber atop the massage bench shortly before the Australian team bus pulled out from their hotel near Cape Town’s fashionably redeveloped waterfront to make the 20-minute trip to Newlands to begin preparations for day two.
As the overnight drizzle dried and the sun broke through, the captain underwent a series of examinations and drills to make sure he was fit to resume an innings that had already served as inspiration to his teammates, and a stirring rallying cry to his country.
In the end, Clarke maintains the decision of whether or not he could resume his innings was simple.
“I had no choice,” he says matter-of-factly.
“I had to go and bat.
“We needed more runs and once you walk out on the field the adrenaline kicks in and a lot of the pain goes away anyway.
“I would do it again tomorrow if that’s what it takes to win.”
Opening batsman Chris Rogers, who later claimed Clarke’s innings immediately filled the team with a belief that the Test and the series was theirs, offered his captain the use of his well-worn arm guard even though Clarke has steadfastly refused to don one throughout his career.
Quick Single: Rogers praises Clarke's gritty ton
When he agreed, in the knowledge that another blow on the left forearm might end his innings and probably his match, Rogers suddenly realised he couldn’t send the Australian skipper back out clad in his shop-soiled version so he fished out a pristine replacement that Warner had earlier gifted to him.
Clarke has eschewed the arm and chest protection that many modern batsmen wear because he feels they restrict his freedom of movement, even though his father, Les, wore an arm guard throughout his grade career with Sydney’s Western Suburbs.
So when, having put his team and his fans through the same sort of emotional torment as he was feeling physical discomfort by taking 25 deliveries to progress past 99 that morning, one of the first messages Clarke received was from his dad, taking note of the new addition to his son’s kit.
“Finally, you’ve woken up to yourself,” Les lovingly admonished via text.
The skipper's battered thumb during the press conference after day two. (Getty Images)
And while Clarke hopes that the need for him to pad up to that extent won’t materialise throughout the remainder of his career, he is undaunted about the prospect of facing up to fast bowlers the world over who he knows will copy and refine Morkel’s template.
“It’s coming for the rest of my career now,” Clarke says of the modern incarnation of leg theory.
“Before England (in last summer’s Ashes series) I spent six weeks working on the short ball because I knew England were going to bowl that way in Australia.
“It doesn’t guarantee that I’m not going to get out to it, I’ve been out to the short ball a number of times in my career and I’m sure that will continue.
“But I’ll find a way to make sure I’m as well prepared as I can be.”
As much as Clarke likes to downplay the heroic element of his knock and claim he was simply doing what was needed for his team, there are others who aren’t so reticent to place the innings he was able to produce in the face of such pain and predatory bowling into an historic context.
Kountouris, who has worked with the Australian team since 2003 and prior to that spent eight years in the role with Sri Lanka, has seen his share of battle wounds overcome, pain thresholds being pushed and performances against the physical odds and he rates Clarke’s innings accordingly.
“It was as good as it gets,” he said.
“That spell of bowling was pretty brutal.
“It was a bit of unique situation because normally someone will get hit two or three times and there’s one of those that might worry you, or none that might worry you.
“But in his case he got hit three different times and I was pretty concerned with all three
“I’ve not seen a player go through that sort of barrage and keep on playing.
“People usually get hit once, and if that’s a hit in the head it’s pretty brave to stay out there let alone keep batting for another full day and to score a century like he did.”
Full highlights from Clarke's amazing Cape Town century.
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cricket Australia
First Posted 08 June, 2014 8:30PM AEST