Clarke sees writing on the wall
In the minutes after Australia secured passage to the World Cup final with a thumping victory over India, Michael Clarke filed into the basement of the Bradman Stand at the SCG for his post-match press conference. He had made this journey many times before, not least on the morning when he was unveiled as Australia's captain, almost four years to the day, in the same basement.
Often, Clarke has made this walk alone, save for the Cricket Australia media manager of the moment. This time Clarke had company, in the form of Steven Smith. As man of the match, Smith would usually expect to answer only a handful of questions while the captain took most of them. This time however he took the first one, and many more after that. Clarke has always looked and spoken like the captain of his team; now it was Smith taking on that bearing, even as Clarke sat beside him.
It was noticeable that Smith looked and spoke as a leader. Clarke clearly noticed it too, for after he made the drive home from the SCG to his home in the eastern suburb of Vaucluse and found his wife Kyly asleep in bed, he awoke her with the words that he had decided the World Cup final would be his final ODI match. Often, press conferences offer nothing of significance - the most widely reported quote from this one happened to be a journalist's slip of the tongue about "tremendous sex, er, success". But it had actually provided an accurate window into the evolution of the Australia team, and Clarke's diminishing place in it.
"Through this World Cup in the back of my mind I've been thinking 'am I a chance of playing in the next World Cup' and about 48 hours ago I made the decision that I don't think I will be," Clarke said. "That answered a lot of questions for me, then it was about speaking to my family and working out what I think is best for the team. There's no doubt I could keep playing for the next couple of years, but I think the team and the next captain deserves the time I certainly got as captain in preparation for a major event like the World Cup.
"It really helped me to have that preparation, to have that four years of being able to build my own team and set my own style as a captain. I think that's give me my best chance to captain the team in this tournament. I'd like the next captain to have that same opportunity. Over the last few weeks I've thought about if there was a chance I was going to be able to make it to the next World Cup, and as soon as I answered that question in my own head, I think my decision was made."
Signs that Clarke was thinking about ODI retirement emerged during the World Cup pool phase with reports about talks with the Melbourne Stars. Clarke could not join and captain the Stars without giving up ODIs, freeing him up to play Twenty20 matches at the back end of the Big Bash League after the Test season concludes with Sydney's New Year Test. Clarke has forgone T20 cash at times over the years to preserve himself for Tests, so the Stars approach - via their president Eddie McGuire - was significant.
Equally, others had been thinking about Clarke's ODI future even before the man himself. A summer of tension between Clarke, the coach Darren Lehmann and the selectors was epitomised by the fact he was set a tight fitness deadline to recover from hamstring surgery or be left out of the World Cup entirely. As much as the deadline was geared at ensuring the team would be settled one way or the other at the pointy end of the tournament, it was also a message from the hierarchy to Clarke that "we can do this without you".
It was in the midst of this struggle, which had its origins early in the summer when Clarke's chronic hamstring problem left him at odds with the panel over how he would prove his fitness for the first Test of the summer, that Clarke's predecessor Ricky Ponting spoke out to say that the best plan for Australian cricket would have Clarke retiring from ODIs at the conclusion of the World Cup. In doing so he would allow room for Smith to establish himself as a leader, while also granting his body extra rest to be fit for Test assignments such as the Ashes and next summer's eagerly anticipated matches against New Zealand.
"I believe that the right time for Michael to hand over the one-day captaincy to Steve will be after the conclusion of this World Cup," Ponting wrote in his ESPNcricinfo column. "In Michael's body and mind he may only have another two or three years left at Test level, and I think it would be a good time for Steven to take over the one-day job and Michael to remain as Test captain. This would give Smithy a bit more of a chance to get used to the idea of captaining his country long-term."
Ponting's is a voice deeply respected in Australian cricket's upper echelons: he still speaks regularly with the team performance manager Pat Howard among others, and when captain always communicated closely with the chief executive James Sutherland. It was Sutherland who stepped in to reassure Clarke of his role as captain on the day of the Allan Border Medal - a time when Clarke, Lehmann and the selectors were at a particularly fraught stage of their relationship.
Sutherland's intervention served to ease things, but there also needed to be some ground given by Clarke. It has arrived in the shape of his ODI retirement, an announcement that will clear the air for the team about what is to happen in the future, while also providing yet another motivator for victory over Brendon McCullum's team on Sunday. After all the speculation, tension and disagreement of this longest and most draining of summers, the band will happily work together on one final masterpiece, as the Beatles did on Abbey Road.
Clarke said his final message to the Cup side was about playing the decider with freedom, not worrying about the consequences of mistakes and trusting themselves and each other. "A lesson I learned at a very young age was that's why you go to training every day, that's why you work so hard at your preparation, so when you walk onto that big stage under pressure, you just go out and play with freedom," he said. "I don't think I have to say too much to be honest, I think the guys are ready to play. Mentally we are ready for this final, physically we've got another day to recover or get what you need to be right for tomorrow. But the team's ready.
From the opener David Warner down to the No. 11 Josh Hazlewood, they would all have heard this many times before. But the knowledge that they are hearing it from Clarke for the final time should provide a these words with plenty of meaning.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig