Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney January 2, 2014

Clarke has more mountains to scale

Michael Clarke's reputation may have been enhanced in the eyes of the Australian public, but he himself admits that success away from home is the ultimate goal

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Muhammad on January 3, 2014, 8:51 GMT

    @ooper_cut, so you are saying Haddin and Johnson have nothing to snatch, right?

  • John on January 3, 2014, 7:55 GMT

    All the accolades should go to one man, Darren Lehman, the players are the same, the captain is the same but the outlook and unity inside the team has changed because of this one guy. CA owes it to him BIG time.

  • Graham on January 2, 2014, 23:11 GMT

    Cpt.Meanster; For someone that doesnt care about the Ashes that was a well research comment on Cook and Clarke. Stuck to the topic, that is Australia and England and quite a decent post. Well done.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2014, 22:33 GMT

    While I don't particularly like Clarke; I hope that he gets to choose when he retires, rather than having it forced upon him by his crook back.

    On other issues: I see the selectors sticking with Bailey for a while because if Clarke is forced to retire early they have a ready made captain already in the team.

    Also, as some others have suggested, I would like to see some younger players selected (to see if they have they right attitude/temperament/skill set for test matches) especially during 'dead rubbers' like this Sydney test. Australia has traditionally chosen younger players to represent the nation but recently it seems you have to be closer to 30 than 20 to get a place.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2014, 21:44 GMT

    The difference between Clarke's situation now and Mark Taylor's retirement was that Taylor had been struggling for runs (prior to his 334no) for the last 12-18 months of his career, and there was a push to replace him with Steve Waugh as Test captain.

    Aside from Clarke's good form, I don't believe there is currently anyone in Australia who could be seriously considered to replace Clarke; George Bailey could take over as full-time ODI captain (potentially extending Clarke's Test career) but Bailey's Test career has been less than sufficient to even guarantee (or even justify) his on-going position in the team.

  • Kurt on January 2, 2014, 21:09 GMT

    @RhidWilliams The margin between winning and losing is often very small, but if you have been in the dressing rooms after a defeat or a victory (in any sport) you would understand the huge difference that this small margin makes. A winning team is a happy team, and winning consistently then becomes a habit. If australia had 'got lucky' and scraped through with a victory in this series then i would tend to agree with you, however the emphatic nature of this series win will do wonders for the confidence of the team and players such as Mitchell Johnson whose form swings dramatically due to confidence. The South Africans remember all too well what happened in 2008 when Mitch was virtually unplayable over there...this is set up to be a fascinating series!

  • Peter on January 2, 2014, 18:51 GMT

    The Aussie selectors should be bold and drop Bailey.

    They would be admitting that they made a mistake but they would earn the respect of many if they did drop him. It was a risk and it backfired and they should be up front about it.

    Now is the time to try new blood.

  • Jay on January 2, 2014, 17:50 GMT

    Personally, I have a deep respect for Pup. I think he's an honest man. He doesn't talk too much, nor he keeps to himself. He says all the right things Aussie fans want to hear and goes on field and sets the example for the rest of his team mates to follow. That's the ideal captain any team wants. Cook on the other hand is a quiet and orthodox skipper. Sadly, England need anything but orthodoxy now because they are trying to find their way out of this mess. Clarke now has the perfect opportunity to mould this Australian team in his own way. We have heard about Taylor's/Waugh's/Ponting's' teams, now Clarke will take this team forward in his own image. However, it won't be easy for Australia because India and SA are very good teams. But the effort will be appreciated by Aussie supporters.

  • Arun on January 2, 2014, 16:59 GMT

    Contrary to what people perceive barring a disaster in India, Hard fought series loss in England Aus haven't been bad travellers after all. They have won a series in SL, NZ, WI the last time they travelled and haven't lost in SA for a while.

  • Allan on January 2, 2014, 16:46 GMT

    @ Bonehead_maz, It's called having goals. He is a perfectionist so of course will set extremely high standards for himself and the team. He and the team will probably not get to No 1, especailly if SA and India continue to improve. But there's nothing wrong with trying. It's that vision and ultra hard work which has seen this Oz team on the verge of white washing a superior team. If they keep up that work ethic, they will win against other over-confident teams, home and away.

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