Clarke's pressure valve released
It is no coincidence that Michael Clarke's carefree century against Worcestershire seemed to indicate that a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. In the early days of Darren Lehmann's reign as coach, Clarke has been deliberately given as little to do as possible, maximising his time to strengthen his back and groove his batting for the Ashes battles ahead.
Not since the day Lehmann was appointed has Clarke been required to speak publicly, nor has he been required to participate fully in every training session. Clarke's only statements have been delivered via his bat, with spectators at Taunton and New Road witness to a promisingly ascending score trend of 45, 26, 62 and 124 against Somerset and Worcestershire.
Clarke's off-field leadership had been questioned in the aftermath of the sacking of Lehmann's predecessor Mickey Arthur, flowing on as it did from unsavoury events in India and then England in the early, Champions Trophy-preoccupied weeks of the tour. Lehmann said the best way he could improve Clarke as a captain was to ensure he did not have too much to worry about.
"Take some pressure off him, I reckon that's the biggest way," Lehmann said. "Our role as support staff and people around him is to make sure he gets back to captaining and playing the game and not worrying about the stuff he doesn't really need to worry about, and that's where we come into it, making sure the players are best prepared and can go and play, and have a game plan that suited to the way we want to play. Then he can just go and captain.
"I just hope I take pressure off all the players to be perfectly honest. We've got to let them play the game of cricket, it's a tough enough game at the best of times, so my role is to make sure they're enjoying themselves on and off the field, learning about the game and all those things, and making sure we play a positive brand of cricket."
In this, Lehmann echoed his former South Australia team-mate and Arthur's coaching forebear Tim Nielsen. Interviewed by ESPNcricinfo in 2011 after his exit from the job, Nielsen said Clarke's greatest challenge as captain would be to devote enough time to maintaining his own batting and fitness when so many other issues demanded his attention.
"His biggest challenge will be to make sure he keeps his mind on his batting as well," Nielsen had said. "There's so much going on with the team at the moment, so many distractions, and as a first-time captain of the Australian team full-time, he's going to have so much to do around the place. I just hope he can continue to bat as well as he is at the moment and not let those distractions get in the way.
"If he's playing well, a lot of the stuff looks after itself. I know myself, when I was coaching in that Indian summer [in 2008], you have the attitude of 'stuff keeps happening but I'll keep at it, nothing's too hard', but after a while it can wear you down. So Michael needs to be aware that it can wear him down."
Clarke has already saved himself a good deal of time and worry by divesting himself of selection duty. Lehmann said Clarke would more often than not still have his selection preferences followed, but without the distraction of constant involvement in phone hook-ups and dialogue about matters other than winning the next game.
"He'll still have input, the captain's got to be really comfortable with the side he puts out each and every time I think," Lehmann said. "We speak every day about it, as do Rod [Marsh] and all the selectors. You'd be mad if you didn't use your captain's opinion, I wouldn't want to put a percentage on it, but he'll get pretty much what he wants within reason all the time."
Phillip Hughes, who was at the other end for most of Clarke's Worcester century, reckoned the innings showed a useful window into Clarke's state of mind and body. No longer the harried and immobile figure of the tour's early weeks, he is now looking ready to take the fight to England at Trent Bridge.
"It's a really good statement," Hughes said. "He'd been out of the game for around three months, and to play last week and play well, and today to go on with that three figures was outstanding and pushed the game forward. He's moving really well and not even complaining about it [his back] one bit, and that's a real pleasing thing for himself and all of us as a unit."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here