Clarke determined to fight in adversity
Michael Clarke could be forgiven for thinking that it's all getting a bit much. His team is on the verge of losing an Ashes series and possibly a seventh straight Test. His own run-scoring has diminished since the highs of 2012. Most significantly, his sore back will trouble him for the rest of his career. The Queen looked more sprightly when she took the field at Lord's than a stiff Clarke did at training in Manchester on Tuesday.
Last week, the respected ABC radio commentator Jim Maxwell caused a minor ripple when he said, rather matter-of-factly, that he believed Clarke would retire within the next year. It was not an opinion Maxwell alone held. But despite his back pain, despite the team's turmoil on the field, despite the pressure than comes with being the team's captain and best batsman, Clarke says he has no plans to step aside.
"I'm not retiring in the near future," Clarke said. "I'm like every other player; you get frustrated that you don't make as many runs as you would like and get frustrated that the team's not having success but that only makes the challenge more exciting. I want to help this team have success, I want to make sure I'm leading the way and scoring runs, and I'm 32 and not 36 so luckily I've got a few years before I have that discussion."
In fairness to Clarke, while he looked sore at Old Trafford, he had been spry during the tour match against Sussex in Hove over the past week; he ran drinks, bowled a few overs on the field before play, tried to help energise the side. But back injuries are unpredictable; sleep on an awkward angle, twist the wrong way batting in the nets and that can be that.
Clarke has had the back problem since he was a teenager, but has missed only one Test because of it. Notably though, it was this year when he sat out in Delhi; he was also unfit for the Champions Trophy. That was an unsuccessful tournament for Australia, but ultimately one that is of no consequence. The same cannot be said of this Ashes tour, especially with a return series in Australia so close.
Clarke was part of the Australian outfit that swept England 5-0 in 2006-07, part of a record run of 16 consecutive Test victories under Ricky Ponting's leadership. Nobody really expected that within seven years, an Australian record of seven consecutive Test defeats would be on the cards. Clarke said the desire to lead his team out of that mire was another reason not to consider retirement.
"It's extra drive," he said. "It certainly gets you out of the bed in the morning. Generally around five o'clock. I want us to have success and I think we've seen so far on this tour that our batters have got to make sure we're leading from the front. There's a lot of experience in our top seven we need to make sure we're performing.
"We haven't performed as well as we'd like on this tour and neither in India so as captain, as a player, you want to do the best you possibly can. As a captain you probably take it more personally when the team doesn't have as much success as you would like, which probably just makes me work harder.
"Losing six Test matches in a row is something we're not proud of ... I'm confident that we can win these next three Test matches and win the series. I know it seems a long way away to a lot of people, but as a player, seeing how close we got in the first Test reminds us that we were really not that far away from winning that first Test match, 15 runs away. If we can play our best cricket, which we haven't done so far on this tour, the whole 11 players who take the field, we'll give it a good shake."
The 14-run defeat at Trent Bridge was somewhat deceptive, though, for the Australians came that close mostly because of tail-end runs. The lack of big scores from the specialist batsmen is Australia's major on-going concern. The first day of the Test series in India in February seems a lifetime ago, given all that has changed in the Australian camp since then, but it was that day in Chennai that Clarke himself scored the last Test hundred made by an Australian player.
"We're all looking for answers, aren't we?" Clarke said. "To make big runs you've got to bat plenty of time. You've got to find a way to get through the tough periods and that's what we haven't been able to do. When England have bowled well, they've managed to get not just the one wicket but they've got two or three quite quickly and that has put us under the pump.
"I've always said, in India and England especially, but all around the world, it's hard to start your innings against good attacks. Starting your first 20 balls is very tough. You can always get a good ball or be a little bit hesitant at the start of your innings. I'm not as disappointed if blokes get out like that. It's more when we get in we've got to go on and cash in and make big scores. We haven't done that for a while now."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here