Clarke has more mountains to scale
Sometime, somewhere over the past two years a rumour about Michael Clarke began to circulate. It was far from the only piece of hearsay Clarke has negotiated over his time as Australia captain, but it was perhaps the easiest one to believe. Not concerned with personal dirt or team ructions, it simply outlined when Clarke might elect to retire. The nominated date was the conclusion of the 5th Ashes Test at the SCG in January 2014. This week.
The juncture seemed premature, but also somehow logical. Clarke has never loved touring, once saying he would play cricket all year round if he could do so from Sydney. Clarke has never considered himself likely to go on to the sort of gargantuan Test tallies compiled by his predecessors Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, stating he had no such intention, at a business lunch in 2012. And Clarke has a chronic back condition, requiring long and arduous recovery work simply to stay on the field day to day, and even greater exertion to settle his degenerative discs whenever they flare.
Victory in this Ashes series also offered the optimum time for Clarke to walk out from the game, his reputation enhanced mightily and the Australian public grateful for his relentless batting, nimble tactics and improved leadership. Mark Taylor, the Australian captain most often paralleled to Clarke, also retired earlier than expected, leaving the scene following Ashes success at home in the summer of 1998-99. Taylor moved seamlessly into television work, and Clarke has made his own quiet preparations for later years by planning his own cricket academy in the southern highlands of New South Wales.
Home and hearth are clearly dear to Clarke, but what has become increasingly apparent across these past two Ashes series is how much he has begun to genuinely love his team. From the likes of Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris and David Warner, with whom he has always enjoyed a strong relationship, to those of Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson and more recent inclusions like Chris Rogers and George Bailey, Clarke is now enjoying the success of all his team-mates in equal measure. He wants to go on to further and greater triumphs with them, leaving any personal timeline to one side.
How much the coach Darren Lehmann has contributed to this collective spirit is something only Clarke can truly gauge, but it is fair to surmise that the captain's crown is resting less heavily on his head than it had done in the first half of 2013. During the Melbourne Test, the national selector John Inverarity termed Lehmann's influence as bringing "an energising lightness" to the team, and this is as evident in Clarke as anyone else. The Australian team has become a most enjoyable place to be around, a process that began in defeat in England, but has been bolstered greatly by victory down under.
"I hope there's bigger and better things to come because I'd stop getting out of bed if it wasn't going to get any better," Clarke said on match eve. "Every day I get out of bed to try and become a better player. I train my backside off on a daily basis. I've always had discipline in my life and if I was told today that it wasn't going to get any better then I'd walk away from the game today. I hope I can become a better player. I think I can. There's certainly areas of my own personal game that I know need improvement and I work on those daily.
"I think this team can get better. I don't think it would be wise of us to get carried away. We've won four Test matches in our own backyard. But it seems in international cricket at the moment a lot of teams are having success in their own backyard. It's what you do away from home as well. And that's going to be a huge challenge for us over the next 12 months. We play some really tough opposition. And we've got to try to find a way to have some success overseas as well. I certainly believe this team can get better. And I certainly believe as a player I've got a lot of room for improvement."
As Clarke alluded to, those greater glories lie away from home. Australia's roaring success in this Ashes series at home will sit high among any achievement by the national team in familiar surrounds, but the greatest Test match victories of the teams that preceded his have undoubtedly arrived on foreign soil. The 1989 Ashes, the 1995 tour of the Caribbean and the 2004 victory in India are all viewed with admiration for how easily such ventures can end in failure - it only requires a look at much of 2013 for the Australians to remember this.
Beyond Sydney, Clarke and his men go to South Africa, for a meeting with the world's foremost team. The two battles between the nations since Clarke began have been memorable for their fluctuations and their intensity. Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2011 and Adelaide and Perth in 2012 offered Test match combat of rare quality, with Australia holding opportunities for victory on each occasion. For all the doomsayers predicting a fall after Australia's summer of Ashes pride, Clarke will know how close he has come to outflanking Graeme Smith before.
Following a lengthy and overdue break, the Test side will then fly to the Dubai to rejoin battle with Pakistan. A chance to partly erase the memories of India 2013 by prospering against quality spin and skilful batting will appeal to many of the participants on last year's dysfunctional tour. It will also offer Lehmann the sort of environment in which his coaching skills will be tested to the maximum. There are plenty more mountains for Clarke to climb. Contrary to rumour, he has not lost his appetite for them.
"I don't look at any one series or a tournament that seems to be the pinnacle," Clarke said. "And I've said every match I play for Australia is just as important. I don't mean any disrespect to any Ashes series but I prepare for any series against India or South Africa or New Zealand, I train just as hard. I want to have just as much success as I have against England.
"My time as Australian player and captain will come when either of the selectors decides to drop me because I'm not performing well enough and the team is not having success. Or I get to a stage where I don't think I can give my all and can't perform at this level any longer and I have that opportunity to retire. I hope.
"From the retirement side of things I think that's a long way away and hopefully the selectors think from the dropping side of things that's a long way away as well. But only time will tell, performances dictate that I'm like every other player. If I don't perform well enough I'll be dropped like everybody else."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here