The Michael Clarke culture wars have resumed. The former Australian captain plays for his old grade cricket club Western Suburbs this weekend, on the first step of what may or may not be a comeback to big time cricket.
Technically it's not really a comeback. While Clarke retired from international cricket in the middle of 2015 after the unsuccessful Ashes campaign in England, which Australia lost 3-2, he was still contracted to the Melbourne Stars Big Bash Twenty20 franchise for two years from April 2015.
So when Clarke announced on January 30 this year that he has "unfinished business" in the Twenty20 format of the sport, and may expand from there into other variants of the game, it was hardly an un-retirement announcement.
Yet to many, it came across as a rather desperate cry for attention. Andrew Webster, chief sports writer with the Sydney Morning Herald, has penned a stinging column ahead of Clarke's grade cricket return which encapsulates what many people were likely thinking.
"There are more pressing issues at hand [than watching Clarke's return], like plaiting my hair," Webster wrote.
"The well-orchestrated public relations operation that has surrounded Clarke's return has been unfurled with military precision. So busy has Clarke been this week, PR dynamo Sally Burleigh has been engaged to handle media inquiries."
Webster's central thesis is that Clarke is struggling with Relevance Deprivation Syndrome. "Relevancy to a sportsman is almost as addictive as how many likes they get on a single Instagram post," he wrote.
So you might say that while the sport of cricket agonises over the inconsistencies of the Decision Review System (DRS), Clarke continues to wage his personal battle with RDS.
But there's another battle Clarke continues to fight, and it's the same one he's been fighting since he first burst into the Australian team as a kid with peroxide blond hair in 2004. Michael Clarke is still, after all these years, struggling to mould and craft an image which is acceptable to the Australian public.
Evidence of this came in an interview on Fox Sports News 500 on Thursday night.
"I’m probably different," Clarke told the talented Neroli Meadows. "I don’t drive a ute with a case of VB in the front and a cattle dog in the boot."
That statement, right there, goes to the heart of everything that always put people off Clarke. It's not that anyone gave a toss about what car he drove, or what brand of beer was in it, or whether he rode around with a cattle dog called Blue or a fat Persian cat called Fluffy with a little tinkly bell around its neck.
What bothered people is that Clarke cared. That he seemed so keen to craft a persona.
Ironically, in his Fox interview last night, Clarke said he had always been the real him, and that he'd never tried to project anything different.
"I haven’t tried to be anyone apart from myself. I haven’t tried to change. I feel like I’m the same person I was, that my mum and dad brought up as a six-year-old boy, and my values haven’t changed. I’ve always been true to myself," he said.
The problem was never genuineness. This reporter has met Clarke a few times and has always found him to be a genuinely genuine bloke. The problem is Clarke's ingenuity, or lack of it.
Always, Michael Clarke has felt the need to tell us who he is. His bling and fast car early in his career told us that he was the hottest young sports star around, and knew it. When he ditched Bondi and Bingle and moved back to the Shire, it was a clear message was that his wild days were over and he was ready for the captaincy.
Always he has projected an image. Clarke once called a press conference to announce that he was taking time out from the public eye. A less needy type would have just vanished.
And now Clarke is needy again. Whether he needs cash or attention or just the competition and camaraderie that high-level sport provides, nobody except Clarke can say for sure. Maybe it's a combination of all three.
But the backlash is a response to yet another stage-managed Clarke moment.
Australians love a real person, even if that person is a dickhead. Look at our affection (or at least our obsession) for Warney. Shane Warne couldn't give a toss what people think about him. Clarke has always seemed a little too desperate to be understood, and by association, loved.
"Some people are going to like that and some people aren’t... I think I’ve said a number of times through my career that, for me, it was more about being respected than being liked," Clarke said on Fox Sports 500 last night.
The irony is that if he stopped so hard trying to be liked, he'd be naturally respected.
Meanwhile, in a realm where numbers speak much louder than all this emotional gobbledygook, Clarke has major problems. He averages a paltry 21 with the bat in both domestic and international of Twenty20 cricket. It has always been his weakest form of the game, and the cricket world knows it.
All the stage management in the world won't help Clarke enjoy a career like that of his old nemesis Shane Watson, the Aussie T20 specialist who commands millions each year in his new mercenary role as slugger-at-large in his post-international career.Suggest a correction