Twenty20 sacrifice pays off for Michael Clarke
This day last year, Australia were about to be splintered by England in the fifth Ashes Test, and their stand-in captain Michael Clarke was about to announce his retirement from international Twenty20 matches.
Twelve months later, Clarke has led his team to an overwhelming victory against India, and his monumental 329 not out was its centerpiece. The first step Clarke made between then and now was to excuse himself from the game's shortest format, and it now appears among the wisest decisions he has made.
Clarke was never the most natural fit for Twenty20 anyway, but his muddled batting in the Ashes was the best encapsulation of the syndrome that had Australia spreading its diminished resources too thinly across the formats. It was an approach the former coach Tim Nielsen said had made the team "jack of all trades and master of none".
"The greatest thing about the Twenty20 competitions is it's very individual, each individual player has the opportunity to make his own decision, and I think the T20 in Australia has been outstanding," Clarke said. "For me, I think I made the right decision to stand down from T20 cricket internationally at the time, to be able to focus on my one-day cricket and Test cricket. I really thought I had to improve my game, to try to become the player I want to be, to become the best player I can possibly be.
"I think that time, whether it be four or five days to be able to work on Test cricket before we travel and play a Test match [has been helpful]. I don't know what my results say, my statistics over the last 12 months, but I feel my game is in a better place now than it was 12 months ago, that's for sure."
Clarke's batting and captaincy have been given valuable time to breathe by his absence from T20, both internationally and in the domestic Big Bash League. That time allows Clarke, as captain a man with many responsibilities and distractions, the chance to look after his own game.
"The reality is as a player you need to perform, if you don't perform you're not in the team, and it's no different whether you're captain or not … I learned that the hard way when I got dropped," Clarke said. "My focus my whole career has been winning games of cricket, the teams winning whether I was a player, vice-captain or now captain, so I don't think that's changed, my attitude towards that hasn't changed.
"There's enough time in a day in my opinion to look after your own individual preparation and make sure everyone in the team is fully prepared and ready to go. It takes a lot of help from all the people around me, all the support staff, the coach and the rest of my team. I'm lucky in this team that I have some senior players that help me out a lot, and I have some young players that are really keen to learn and improve.
"This whole team in my opinion is heading in the right direction. We have a lot of work to do but we're heading in the right direction and I'm just enjoying the opportunity to lead so many good young players."
As captain and T20 retiree, Clarke has now compiled 819 runs at 68.25 with four centuries. The tally is swelled greatly by his Sydney effort, but greater responsibility and presence has been evident in innings played on a wide variety of surfaces, from the Galle dustbowl to the Cape Town green top.
"[Captaincy has] probably put a bit of extra responsibility on me, but I don't feel like I've changed my game," Clarke said. "I guess what I've worked on over the last 12 months is really trying hard to improve my game, facing our bowlers in the nets with brand new balls to improve my technique, my defence. Facing a lot of spin on unprepared wickets, to improve my play against spin for when we travel to the subcontinent.
"So I just think and hope my game is improving. That's been my goal for a long time now, to become the best player I can be, and I certainly don't think one innings determines whether your game's improved or not. I think the last 12 months in every part, getting fit, getting strong, getting my back right and training hard in the nets, that's a reward for the work I've put in."
As for the magnitude of what he achieved in Sydney, Clarke said he may not fully grasp it until he retires. In cricket's endless 21st century cycle of matches and tours, a moment's reflection can be hard to come by.
"I don't think it does until you've retired to be honest, until your career's come to an end," he said. "I got asked the same question about my Test debut, and until this day I don't think I've ever stopped and looked at my debut and thought, 'how did I play and how special was that'. It's exciting at the time, don't get me wrong, but this Test match I'm very proud of the achievement of being able to bat for a long period of time, and the runs took care of themselves I guess.
"I don't think I'll ever look back on it until my career's ended. I'm most pleased as to my personal performance, just being able to make runs and contribute in this series. It's a huge series for this team, the first series I've been full-time captain in Australia, in front of my fans and the Australian public, and it is important that I stood up."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo