Michael Clarke on his first Father’s Day as a single dad
Michael Clarke is halfway through an afternoon of posing up for photos with Stellar, casually chatting to the crew between shots, when he hears a voice that makes him instantly turn. "Dadddddy..." It's his four-year-old daughter Kelsey Lee, who lets out a squeal before she runs up to him and throws herself into his arms.
"Here's my princess!" Clarke says, hugging her as if he hasn't seen her in months when really, it's been less than a day. Beaming with pride, Clarke introduces Kelsey Lee to the crew before walking her to a table covered with snacks so they can debrief about her day at preschool.
It's a far cry from the Clarke many know best: not just the 43rd Australian to captain our national Test team, but also an at-times abrasive and polarising presence in sport. Clarke himself says that Kelsey Lee brought out a softness that has hit him for six.
"My little girl gives me a kiss on the cheek 10 times a day," he tells Stellar. "She doesn't hang the phone up without saying, 'I love you, Daddy.' I can't believe how soft and affectionate I am. I didn't think that was in me." He adds that he is now just as well-versed in the Frozen soundtrack as he once was with the team song. "She has been the best thing for me."
Clarke might have once held the most important position in the country after the prime minister, but that doesn't make him immune to the life-altering effects of parenthood. Yet he is aware that moments like these, where he's the epicentre of his little girl's world, do not last forever.
"One day, my daughter is going to love me just the way I love my mum and dad," he explains. "It's not going to be this over-the-top love, when she comes running up to me and jumps into my arms."
And that makes every kiss, cuddle, daddy/daughter pizza date and handmade card even more special - and in particular the time they plan to spend with each other today, which marks his first Father's Day as a single dad, having announced his separation from wife Kyly in February. "I don't know what we will do," he says. "But if Kelsey Lee's with me, I'm happy."
Father's Day also coincides with another event that is close to his heart, as it falls near the end of National Asthma Week. After being rushed to hospital when she struggled for breath, Kelsey Lee was diagnosed with the condition, which affects more than 2.7 million Australians, about two years ago.
"It's as scary as it gets," Clarke says. "One of the things you learn is there is no such thing as a minor asthma attack. When your lungs stop, your lungs stop. It's life or death every time."
The seriousness of the condition was a key reason that Clarke signed on as an ambassador for Wheezo, a smart device that helps monitor and improve asthma management. "If there is a device that can give me, as a dad, more information to be able to help manage her condition, then I'll do it. There is no doubt I'm overprotective. I can't have my little girl suffering. I try to do whatever I can to take the pain away."
Clarke says he always knew he would work at being a hands-on parent, especially given his own father Les missed the bulk of his childhood because he was too busy working to make ends meet for his family. "I always thought the day I had kids [would be] the day I retired from cricket," he tells Stellar. "Because I don't want to spend 10 months away from my child."
True to his word, just months after Kelsey Lee's birth, Clarke walked away from the game he'd loved since he was six years old. "I was always going to be around for my child," he explains. "Time is more valuable than anything on the planet; I'm just fortunate that I've worked my backside off to set myself up so I can do that."
And the moments he has with Kelsey Lee are even more precious now he only sees her 50 per cent of the time, owing to the dissolution of his seven-year marriage. "At the moment we do three nights on, three nights off - that's our routine," he says. "Kyly and I talk daily to work out if that is best for Kelsey Lee."
It is a routine Clarke never envisioned. "As a young man, I didn't see myself getting married and separating or breaking up."
And the transition has hardly been easy for him. "We always talk about single mothers; the challenges they face. But the single father faces challenges as well. There are things about Kelsey Lee that I learn every day. If I don't see her for three nights, I feel like my girl has turned six," he says. "I've got the same challenges as the father who works down the pub or the father who is doing a milk run. As a parent, I'm absolutely no different to any other father."
As he adjusts to a new way of life, he is also trying to navigate being in a relationship again. Clarke is now dating Pip Edwards, the co-founder of fashion line P.E Nation and a single parent herself, to son Justice, 13.
Even though the two appear on each other's social pages and have recently returned from a loved-up family holiday in Noosa, Clarke is hesitant to provide Stellar with any details about their still-fresh pairing. "The people who know me know I'm extremely private or try and be as private as I can with my personal life," he says. "But I can sit here and say my daughter is the most important thing in my world. I've got a wonderful relationship and friendship with Kyly. In regards to me personally? I'm so happy right now. I'm in a great place. That's all I can ask for."
The topic of his new relationship marks the only time Clarke baulks at answering questions, which is perhaps understandable given in the past his love life has often risked overshadowing his acclaimed cricketing career. "I've never been able to comprehend why people are interested in my personal life, 'cause I'm not like that," says Clarke.
"I'm not going to buy a magazine to read about Denzel Washington's personal life. I don't care who he's married to [or] who he's dating. I love him as an actor. If something is thrown at my daughter or my partner at the time, it always hits me much harder than something thrown at me."
But the attention wasn't just about the girls. The opulent lifestyle held equal interest - and brought its own scrutiny. Despite the fact he came from humble beginnings in the western suburbs of Sydney, some chafed when he started mixing his baggy green with Givenchy.
Clarke believes all that criticism prepared him to accept the role as Australian Test Cricket captain in 2011. "The public scrutiny of my career, certainly in regard to my personal life, toughened me," he reasons. "I knew whatever criticism I got about my captaincy [was] going to be a walk in the park compared to the scrutiny I'd just faced about my personal life."
Ultimately, it was the maturity and perspective he gained after seeing his father recover from a seemingly terminal case of Hodgkin lymphoma that helped him take the criticism straight to the keeper. "I just accepted I couldn't change people's opinions," he says. "Some fans liked me, some fans didn't. Some journalists liked me and some didn't. You go through stages where you hate every single person because you copped some criticism, but going through that roller-coaster ride in the media, you build strength. Criticism is never fun and it's never nice. But I don't care."
Which is why, since retiring from the game in 2015, Clarke has been able to cross to the other side by taking media roles, first as a commentator and now as host on AM radio show The Big Sports Breakfast. "You can't hide who you are doing live TV or radio. You can't fake that," he says.
"It takes copping plenty of smacks in the mouth, but I'm OK with who I am. I'm OK with not drinking beer, I'm OK with having tattoos, I'm OK with driving a nice car. I'm OK with the way my mum and dad brought me up and the values they instilled in me."
Clarke adds that he sees a big part of his role in the public eye as helping prepare young athletes for all the outside pressures that come with playing elite sport in Australia. "If you think you can play sport and not be a role model... it doesn't work like that," he begins.
"But because you're a role model and play sport at the highest level doesn't mean you don't make mistakes. I thought playing cricket for Australia was to bat, bowl and field as well as I could. I wish I knew everything that comes with playing cricket before I got there. Young boys and girls need to know, because it's too dangerous getting there and trying to work it out. Especially these days with social media, the criticism you can cop, paparazzi being out the front of your house and people interested in your personal life."
Since quitting cricket, Clarke, who was named an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AO) in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours, says, "I haven't missed it. I always believed cricket was a part of my life. It wasn't my life."
Still, he has tried to maintain some of the structure and routine of an elite athlete's life. He still exercises every day and financially he is sound, given he began planning for retirement from the day he began to play. "I'm so proud of how my mum and dad brought my sister and me up. We didn't have any money and they had to work just to have breakfast, lunch and dinner, and that taught me the value of a dollar. That taught me to cherish your money. I don't gamble. I've always saved."
Those are the same values he hopes to instil in his daughter, who he says has no idea of his glory days as a cricketer. "It doesn't matter what house she lives in or what school she goes to, I want her to know the difference between right or wrong; to always say please and thank you."
His father Les tells Stellar that Clarke is a lot softer since having Kelsey Lee, and that it does not surprise him. "Michael always wanted kids, even when he was younger," he says. "He has a niece and nephew a little older than Kelsey Lee and he adores them; he's always had a tight bond with them, so I always knew he would have a great connection with his own. Kelsey Lee has brought out the best parts of Michael."
He adds that Kelsey Lee is a lot like her father, too. "She loves being outside and playing sport. She also loves her ice cream and chocolate, which she gets from Michael. Not to mention she looks identical to him. She is just as cheeky as he was at that age, too, and full of personality. She has him wrapped around her finger."
And Clarke says he wouldn't have it any other way. "It's not all rainbows and butterflies, having a child. There are tough times; there are challenges. Your life changes. Fortunately for me, I can say it's changed for the better."
Originally published as Michael Clarke on his first Father's Day as a single dad