Clarke's captaincy forged in South Africa
As the pundits assemble their predictions for the series between Australia and South Africa, a glance at the last meeting leaves as many questions as answers. A 1-1 stalemate across two hectic Tests in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the series was over all too quickly.
In Dale Steyn's words: "It was like the first two rounds of a boxing match, two heavyweights. Just as soon as we found our feet the Aussies were on their way home."
The Australians were relieved to be doing so, for the result they secured had arrived despite the most chaotic back-room environment imaginable. The Tests took place in between the announcement of the Argus Review's caustic findings and the finalisation of the new coaching staff, selection panel and team performance regime. The dressing room was in a state of considerable flux, with the captain Michael Clarke virtually the only man sure to be there in the long-term.
A few weeks from becoming national coach, Mickey Arthur was still with Western Australia - Troy Cooley a reluctant interim mentor after the departure of Tim Nielsen. Two of Cooley's assistants, Justin Langer and Steve Rixon, were applicants for the senior job. The new bowling coach, Craig McDermott, was trying to instill methods far removed from those advocated by Cooley over the previous five years.
Gavin Dovey, the team manager, was less than six months into the job after replacing Steve Bernard. And Andrew Hilditch was serving out his final tour as part-time chairman of selectors, his replacement John Inverarity making a visit to observe. Pat Howard, the newly-minted team performance manager, also dropped by.
Looking back, Clarke told ESPNcricinfo the difficulties of that tour, and the trip to Sri Lanka that preceded it, were the making of his captaincy. Having secured strong results on those two tours, Clarke reasoned that things could not get too much more difficult, and the establishment of a settled support network around him will be a decided advantage entering the return bout with South Africa, this time to be played over a more satisfactory three Tests.
"That's really been forgotten, the fact we had so many changes in that South African series and even in Sri Lanka, but we managed to still have success," Clarke said. "I'll never forget that, I'll never forget the work and the time I had to put in to try to bring the team together to perform against such a good team in their own backyard. Credit to the players, because their attitude, their work ethic, their will to try to help the team win, was what managed to help us to win in Sri Lanka and then also level the series in South Africa.
"We're in a better place now, that's for sure, but so are South Africa probably. They'll be flying high in confidence after beating England. We've got to play our best cricket, if we play our best cricket I'm confident. Last summer I said I was confident we could beat India if we played our best, and I feel exactly the same now. If we play at our best against South Africa in these conditions, we can beat them."
Clarke's evolution as a leader made another important step between Cape Town and Johannesburg. On day one of the first Test he played as well as he ever had, braving a grassy pitch and the formidable South African attack to crash a bold 151. At the time it felt like an innings that would not be forgotten, yet by the end of the second day it was ancient history. A maelstrom of wickets, 23 in all, had seen Australia toss away their advantage and South Africa sprinting to victory. If he had been considered a singular individual in the past, Clarke now knew beyond all doubt that as captain, he would be defined by his team's results.
"Personally I think it's probably the best hundred I've made for Australia," Clarke said. "I needed to make runs for the team, they had a very good fast bowling attack in conditions that suited fast bowling, and while I managed to get through my first 10 balls I think I got hit in the head three or four times, hit in the gloves another six times or so, and I managed to turn that around and score some runs.
"But when I say that I think it's my best Test hundred, it's one of the most irrelevant Test hundreds because of how the game panned out. I was very disappointed in the second innings, I didn't make many runs. I'd just scored 150 so I was the one player who was in form and I needed to make runs in that second innings. I'll never be happy, however many runs I've made I want to make more. I'm greedy when it comes to batting, I want to keep making runs and help this team win. If we're not winning, you won't see me happy, that's for sure."
So Clarke was a nervous man throughout the Johannesburg Test, which began with the mighty gamble on the 18-year-old Pat Cummins' debut. It ebbed and flowed, albeit at a slightly more leisurely pace than Cape Town, and Clarke's batting contribution was minimal: 11 and 2. He achieved plenty in the field, coaxing a remarkable display out of Cummins and also making the most of Nathan Lyon's spin on a surface not expected to favour spinners.
By the end, when Cummins coshed the winning boundary with just two wickets to spare, Clarke was mentally exhausted. But he was also delighted, and the matter of how many runs he had scored simply did not matter. Out of a chaotic beginning, his team was on the way up.
"My value on winning has always been the same, do whatever the team needs you to do to win. If you need to try to hit your first ball for six, because that's what the team needs, then you do that. That hasn't changed over the years, I've always felt that way," Clarke said. "I guess it re-emphasised that, it showed me that I'd rather get a duck and win.
"When you're younger you don't see things that way, it's one of the things Ricky told me when I took over the captaincy, he said you'll see the team have success and that'll give you as much if not more joy than your own performance, and that is 100% true. Jo'burg is a great example, I didn't score many runs in that game, but the fact that we still won, I enjoyed that a lot more than making 150 in Cape Town."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here