Worcestershire 284 (Compton 79, Mitchell 65, Bird 4-48) and 64 for 1 need 393 to beat Australians 396 for 4 dec and 341 for 5 dec (Clarke 124, Hughes 86)

For most of his first five weeks in England, Michael Clarke has been defined less by what he was than what he wasn't.

To begin with, Clarke wasn't fit. He wasn't in Birmingham for the Walkabout fiasco, then he wasn't taking part in any of the Champions Trophy. When Mickey Arthur was sacked, Clarke wasn't a decision-maker nor, it emerged, anymore a member of the selection panel. Throughout Darren Lehmann's assured first 10 days as coach, Clarke wasn't even the primary spokesman for the team.

On the third day in Worcester, in his final innings before the first Test at Trent Bridge, Clarke was back. Taking advantage of a docile pitch and an amiable attack, he bounded to a century in 90 balls, confirming the return of batting touch and confidence at precisely the right moment before the serious stuff begins.

Most importantly of all, Clarke played without any hint of the back trouble that had flared on his arrival, and can now travel to Nottingham with confidence about his ability to play the sorts of innings Australia so desperately need from him.

Phillip Hughes was similarly arresting as he helped Clarke set Worcestershire a target of 457 to win, which by the close they had reduced to 393 for the loss of Nick Compton's wicket. The day after asserting that he had not been given "fair crack of the whip" by England's selectors, Compton was lured down the pitch by the young spinner Ashton Agar and neatly stumped by Brad Haddin. Agar's teasing spell in the final session was another sign of promise for the tourists, who have rather less to worry about now than a week ago.

That is not to say they are in completely fine fettle. Ed Cowan fell for another of his maddeningly mediocre scores, having been dropped without scoring, though he was unhappy to be given out lbw for 34. In four innings on tour so far his top score is 58, not substantial enough tallies should he occupy the No. 3 berth at Trent Bridge as now appears likely.

Ryan Harris and Jackson Bird also failed to harvest any wickets with the new ball. They did better in the morning when Worcestershire were rolled up for 284. Bird claimed the standout innings figures with 4 for 48, while Harris showed decent rhythm and speed.

Harris was left very much in Bird's wake on the second day, but regathered some ground on the third morning. Gareth Andrew snicked behind to Haddin before Jack Shantry was beaten for pace and angle from round the wicket to have his stumps splayed.

Bird beat the bat numerous times in his early spell but was relieved by James Faulkner, who bowled the last man Chris Russell. It was Cowan who joined Rogers in sprinting off to open the batting, Watson again being held back in the order following his first innings performance just as he had been against Somerset at Taunton.

Cowan was handed an instant reprieve, dropped in the slips by Moeen Ali before he had scored. Rogers was also helped by a few fortunate edges before more full-blooded strokes ensued. The Australians appeared likely to reach lunch without interruption, but a few minutes before the interval Rogers was pinned lbw by Ali's off break from around the wicket.

The order then maintained its elastic and preparatory nature, Hughes moving from No. 6 up to 3 and making a fluent start in sunshine that grew brighter by the minute. Cowan played soundly enough into the 30s, before trying to swish Shantry to leg and being given lbw. He looked pointedly at his bat on the way off the ground, but after the dropped catch on nought there was less reason for sympathy.

Entering at No. 4 for the fourth innings in succession, Clarke promptly set about Worcestershire's bowling with freedom of shots as well as movement, his back appearing to be less restrictive than at any stage of the tour so far. He encouraged a more aggressive posture from Hughes, and the pair entertained another plentiful crowd by cavaliering to a stand of 132 in 123 balls.

Hughes forged ahead of his captain, clattering three sixes with a backswing that gained noticeably in extravagance. He was on course for a century in the session when he miscalculated a Russell delivery and was bowled, but had shown pleasing freedom and confidence in his final innings before the first Test.

Clarke took over the main aggressor's role upon Hughes' exit, driving immaculately at some times and swinging more agriculturally at others. Either way, his eye was sharp, and there can now be little concern that he will walk out to bat in Nottingham without sufficient time in the middle.

He delayed his declaration for an hour after tea, partly to allow Steve Smith another hit and partly to ensure his own bowlers did not have too many overs required of them in the fourth innings.

With the pitch dry and the clouds sparse, Bird and Harris found little early movement on offer, and it took Agar to confound Compton with the kind of delectable delivery that has hastened his rise to the fringes of Australia's Test match thinking at the age of 19. A few more wickets on the final afternoon and Agar may be bidding to join Clarke at Trent Bridge.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here