Clarke conveys Australia's nerves
Few can recall a nervier Michael Clarke press conference than the one he delivered in Brisbane on the eve of Australia's bid to wrest the Ashes back from England at home. Where usually he is polished, sunny and even given to the odd bout of verbosity, this time Clarke was clipped, terse and taciturn. Tense from the moment he walked into the Champions Room at the Gabba, Clarke's prickliness was so evident that his media minder could be heard offering the aside "be nice and positive" in the seconds after the tapes started rolling.
While it cannot be known exactly why Clarke was so distracted, it was fair to surmise that the imminent start of this series provided good reason for introspection. Clarke, his team and Cricket Australia have reached a moment of enormous import not only to all of their careers, but to the game down under. For some weeks, the hosts have projected an image of stability, calm confidence and greater enjoyment under the mentoring of the newish coach Darren Lehmann. But now, with the curtain about to rise, Clarke's mien conveyed the nervousness that bubbles underneath.
Enough members of Clarke's team experienced the humiliation of a 3-1 defeat in the last home Ashes series in 2010-11 to know that failure is not an option. That result caused major upheaval in Australian cricket, hastening the exit of the captain Ricky Ponting, the coach Tim Nielsen, and the chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch. A second such loss on home shores would leave plenty of CA staff looking over their shoulders, not least the industrious team performance manager Pat Howard, anointed by the Argus review as the single point of accountability for the performance of the national side.
Clarke struck a curious note before the previous series also, stressing that Ashes results would not define his captaincy. These words were in contrast with those of his opposite number Alastair Cook, who acknowledged the seemingly obvious point that yes, he would be historically judged largely on the strength of his results against Australia. This time, Clarke's most expansive response suggested that he could not promise victory, and hoped Australian fans would understand this and remain supportive.
"I'm certainly not going to sit here and promise the world and say everything's going to be different," Clarke said. "It's going to be a tough battle like it was in England, and we have to play our best cricket to have success no matter what conditions you play in. It is nice to be playing in front of our home fans, we've got a lot of support throughout the country and it's going to be great to see so many people turn out and support some fantastic cricket."
Numerous reasons do exist for Clarke and his team to enter this series with a "nice and positive" mindset. Under Lehmann's confident stewardship the dressing room ructions of India and England appear to have settled down, while time in the job has allowed the coach to identify and imbue belief in the players he has deemed worthy. The likes of Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris and even the debutant George Bailey have brought solid character and life experience to the team, balancing the brio of David Warner, the fearlessness of James Faulkner and the youthful enthusiasm of Nathan Lyon.
Craig McDermott, John Davison and Mike Young have been called in to bolster the pace, spin and catching departments, even if the latter's presence seemed to infringe on the role of the incumbent fielding coach Steve Rixon. The team doctor Peter Brukner has maintained his recent success in building up the fitness of Shane Watson, who now appears capable of bowling as well as batting. Former players have buzzed smilingly around the team, including Mark Taylor and Glenn McGrath, while recognition of Haddin's 50th Test has offered an individual motivator in addition to the team imperatives.
Plenty may be drawn also from the surrounds in which the Australians find themselves this week. They have not lost a Test match at the Gabba since falling foul of the West Indies in 1988, and not really looked like doing so for equally as long. So pronounced is the Gabba advantage that England regarded their second innings rearguard four summers ago as near enough to a victory, not only leaving Brisbane on level terms but also exhausting the hosts with two consecutive days in the field. In many ways it is the last fortress of the previous empire, the pacey pitch and early season spot in the schedule contributing to the downfall of many an underdone touring team.
England are underdone by their own precise reckoning, having lost more than two full days of preparatory playing hours and a good deal more training time to rain in Hobart, Sydney and Brisbane. They are also less sure of the final XI for Brisbane than at this point in 2010. Back then the tourists' nominated bowling attack had flown up to Queensland early. Now the identity of England's third seamer and wicketkeeper will only be known for sure at the toss. For an opening partner Alastair Cook will not have Andrew Strauss but Michael Carberry - Joe Root's demotion is a victory for Australia's pacemen even before a ball is bowled.
So there was plenty of reason for Clarke to puff his chest out while speaking publicly about the series to come, thereby enhancing curiosity about why he did not. Perhaps the greatest clue for Clarke's trepidation may be derived from Australia's Test match record in 2013 - played 10, won one, lost seven. It is no sort of foundation for a team, and another loss in Brisbane would shatter much of the rebuilding work that has preceded it. Asked about summoning the belief to win over five days for the first time since the New Year's Test against Sri Lanka in Sydney, Clarke replied: "I think the belief's there and hopefully we'll show that over the next five Test matches."
"I think" is a long way distant from "I know", and Clarke will not know the belief is there until after this Test match has run its course. No wonder he was distracted.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here