In Good Conscience

Thanks to Bolt and Clarke, there is plenty to applaud

The England team form a guard of honour, applauding Australian captain Michael Clarke as he walks to the crease at The Oval on Thursday in his final Test match. Clarke, who said there are "no fairy tales in cricket", has struggled for runs during thi
The England team form a guard of honour, applauding Australian captain Michael Clarke as he walks to the crease at The Oval on Thursday in his final Test match. Clarke, who said there are "no fairy tales in cricket", has struggled for runs during this Ashes series and was dismissed for just 15. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The good and the hideous faces of sport are out there.

On Thursday, in a moment of old-fashioned chivalry, England's entire cricket team formed a guard of honour to applaud Australia's cricket captain onto the field for perhaps his final Test innings.

If you know cricket, you understand the febrile atmosphere of the Ashes, one of the oldest and most bitterly fought contests in the history of sports.

Hold that image of Clarke. We are going to need it to help us still to love, or at least to admire, sporting competition once the Athletics World Championships begin in Beijing this weekend.

Tomorrow's 100m final is billed as Usain Bolt versus the drug cheats. Bolt is the fastest human on record, and has never failed a dope test.

If Clarke was for winning and nothing else, he might deserve the vituperative criticism that he is getting in the Australian media. But I actually place him above winning and losing. He has exhausted what he can give to Australia, and rightly passes the baton on to someone else, Steven Smith, in order to lead.

Justin Gatlin, the American, who can beat him on current form, has twice been banned for taking illegal substances. And it is quite likely that five of the finalists will be men who have served their time for doping offences.

Athletics, in one sense the purest form of sport, is in a credibility crisis of long standing.

The Russians, the Americans, and apparently every country that can get hold of the technology to try to mask the substance abuse, make their medallists heroes of state while accusing other cultures of systemic cheating and cover-ups.

Gatlin positively (pun intended) gloats and banks on his reputation as the bad guy. There's gold (second pun also intended) in the shoes of an anti-hero and, at 33 and getting faster all the time, Gatlin is comfortable with his role.

He claims, by the way, that his first failed dope test was for amphetamines contained in medication for attention deficit disorder, and his second for testosterone was in a cream he used on his buttocks.

You might think that to be fooled once by a treatment cure is unfortunate. To do so a second time looks like carelessness (with apologies to Oscar Wilde).

We could listen to the outgoing International Association of Athletics Federations president Lamine Diack, who insists that 99 per cent of athletes are clean. I'm in the camp of the majority who will feel compelled to watch the sprint final on Sunday, doing my very best to suspend disbelief while it is run.

Thank goodness, then, for Clarke and the English cricketers.

The Aussie skipper is living the extremes of joy and despair in his game. Last year, he led Australia to whitewash England in an Ashes series Down Under; this time, he is being pilloried for losing the series in England.

Last November he lost a best friend, batsman Phil Hughes who was killed by a fast delivery hitting the back of his neck beneath the helmet. Clarke regarded Hughes as a little brother; he vowed to wear a black armband in every game he played after Hughes' death, and he dedicated winning the World Cup earlier this year to his ex-colleague.

A man who cares about his cricket, about his country, and about his colleagues. A real man, in my book, in every sense.

Even now, Clarke is having a turbulent time. He overcame career-threatening back and hamstring injuries to make this final trip to Blighty, and it has backfired on him and his team. Australia had lost the Ashes before this current Test began, and Clarke on Thursday was out for 15, mirroring his wretched personal form of the summer.

Nothing like the monster batter he once was, he has scratched together just 132 runs in nine Test innings - and this for a man who once blasted 329 not out against India, 259 not out against South Africa, and 187 against England in Manchester two years ago.

He won't say it but there are huge weights on his mind: The death of Hughes, and the fact that Clarke is about to become a father for the first time.

The evidence is that Australia's team have grown old and toothless in comparison to past teams and that he has been trying to get the best out of what he inherited in 2010.

Maybe he will get a consolation if, weather permitting, Australia win this final Test of the series. If Clarke was for winning and nothing else, he might deserve the vituperative criticism that he is getting in the Australian media.

But I actually place him above winning and losing. He has exhausted what he can give to Australia, and rightly passes the baton on to someone else, Steven Smith, in order to lead.

"I've given my heart and soul to Australian cricket," he said before this Test began. "I've enjoyed every minute, the highs and the lows, and I accept that criticism is certainly warranted for the team - and the leader.

"Now is the right time for me to retire from the game. I'll be watching the boys from my couch in the future. As to myself, there are no fairy tales in cricket, are there?"

When he batted on Thursday, with the openers having shown more backbone than in previous Tests, Clarke got the antithesis to a fairy tale. He was given out to a catch by the wicket-keeper from an edge so slight that it could barely be seen by the human eye - or detected by two of three ways by which technology determines a minuscule touch of bat on ball.

When the taste of that dismissal has gone, what surely should linger will be the Englishmen forming the guard of honour, the Oval crowd standing to unanimously applaud him, and the England captain Alastair Cook stepping forward at the end of the line.

Cook took off his cap, looked his opponent in the eye and shook his hand. Old-fashioned, for sure, but chivalry need not be outdated.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'Thanks to Bolt and Clarke, there is plenty to applaud'. Print Edition | Subscribe