Speculation about Michael Clarke and Australia's leadership has bubbled away fairly persistently over the past couple of weeks. Between Michael's high-profile efforts to get himself right for the World Cup and a few stories emerging in the media about discussions on his future, there has been plenty to ponder.
Views seem to have shifted a little over the past week. Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland has reportedly assured Michael of his standing as CA's first-choice leader and Michael has also indicated he would be happy to play under the captaincy of Steve Smith in the future. Talk of leadership should be allowed to settle down on the eve of the Cup, as players, coaches and administrators unite in pursuit of a common goal.
I believe that the right time for Michael to hand over the one-day captaincy to Steve will be after the conclusion of this World Cup. In Michael's body and mind he may only have another two or three years left at Test level, and I think it would be a good time for Steven to take over the one-day job and Michael to remain as Test captain. This would give Smithy a bit more of a chance to get used to the idea of captaining his country long-term.
At the same time, I am firm in believing that Michael is the right man to lead the team through this World Cup campaign. A tournament at home, with favouritism mounting, is a lot of pressure to be under, and I am very confident about Michael's capacity to handle that given his years of experience and success. Smithy will be a fine ODI captain in time, but the next six weeks should be Michael's moment to chart the team to his own Cup success.
Back in 2002, the chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns chose to leave Steve Waugh out of the one-day team leading into the 2003 World Cup and name me as captain. That period was definitely helpful for me. It allowed me to get my head around the job before Tugga retired two years later and I became captain across both formats before we travelled to Sri Lanka in 2004. Smithy has had a similar background to mine in that he has not done a huge amount of captaincy, even though he has impressed whenever given the chance.
"The last thing you need going into a major tournament is uncertainty around your squad and particularly your leadership"
Learning about captaincy is not just a matter of leading for a few games here and there. Once you become the Test captain of Australia, it's all-encompassing. There is so much you have to do and your life completely changes. Smithy's had a small taste of that and handled it well, but if he eventually winds up as Test and one-day captain for Australia, he will find out what a demanding leadership role the whole thing is. A slow and steady introduction to all of that would be best.
I think that's the way things will go this year, meaning Michael can concentrate fully on the task of beating West Indies at home and then retaining the Ashes in England. Smithy will hopefully make a heap of runs in those series, and then be able to lead the ODI team as it builds towards the 2017 Champions Trophy in England.
Retiring from one-day games will also allow Michael's body regular rest and recovery periods, something that has effectively taken place numerous times already as he has sat out a lot of ODI series. He can be better prepared for Test series because he won't just be on the road going series to series and having to change quickly from one format to another. Too few international cricketers get the chance to spend regular time out, recharging their physical batteries and sorting out any technical kinks produced by an unforgiving schedule.
A fresh and focused Michael would be a huge advantage in England. Apart from anything else he is one of the world's best batsmen, and to take him out of the Test top six for the Ashes would be similar to removing AB de Villiers from South Africa's line-up. I know Smithy and others did a good job during the summer, but India in Australia is a very different scenario to defending the Ashes away from home. Without Michael in that situation, our batting all of a sudden starts to look a lot more vulnerable.
For now, Michael looks ready to lead the team through this tournament with the probable exception of the opening game against England on Saturday. He has made solid progress in his return from surgery, ticking the boxes required of him by the selectors, whether it be batting, fielding or even bowling. His public declarations of fitness and mental freshness should set him up for a terrific campaign as both a captain and a batsman.
That takes away a bit of the speculation about who's going to be the captain during the Cup, is Michael going to make it, and how everyone feels about that. The last thing you need going into a major tournament is uncertainty around your squad and particularly your leadership. That is starting to fade as a topic for discussion, allowing the squad to settle down with a greater amount of certainty about who will lead them for the bulk of the event.
Michael certainly sounds driven to keep playing for a while yet. He has the difficulty of not knowing when his body is going to declare enough is enough, but I would expect him to go on for at least the next two years. Ultimately his future will be dependent on how well he plays. If he has kept his Test batting average around 50, he will be able to play on until he thinks it is time to retire.
If that performance level happens to drop off, like mine did towards the end, then you start to realise within yourself that maybe it is time to go. Michael will understand when the time is right, and I think he is going to be able to play well enough for the next few years to ensure he is around to make that decision for himself. Like any batsman in any era, for any team, it is all about the number of runs you score.