The pain then, the happiness now

Michael Clarke with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy Getty Images

Taking in the significance of a 4-0 pounding of India, Michael Clarke pondered the highs and lows of the game he has made into his life. As he reflected on the pain and happiness it had brought him, he recalled nothing so much as Joy Gresham, the American who married the noted author and academic CS Lewis before dying of cancer. In a cinema depiction of their lives, Gresham tells Lewis: "The pain then is part of the happiness now - that's the deal." For Clarke, the pain then is part of the happiness now.

First, the pain. Last summer, minutes after the conclusion of an Ashes mauling by England, the stand-in Australian captain Michael Clarke sat in the basement of the SCG's Bradman stand. He was asked if his country's cricket was in crisis, whether the national team had to learn from England, whether or not he was worth his place in the team. Looking drained and pained by the experience of the series and the stress of captaincy, Clarke was nobody's idea of a conquering hero.

Today, Clarke strode again to face the television cameras and audio recorders in Adelaide. He did it as the undisputed leader of his team, as its best batsman, as its man of the series, and as its most striking example of the improvements made over the preceding 12 months. There was happiness in his voice when he spoke, but also some fatigue. No-one has worked harder to change the direction of the national team than Clarke, and no-one is entitled to derive more satisfaction from the way it is now purring. His reflections bear repeating.

"One day you can go out and make a hundred and in the second innings you can make a duck, you go from the best player in the world to the worst player in the world in the same day. And I have experienced that a few times throughout my career," Clarke said. "I think South Africa was a great example of that, I made a 150 innings in Cape Town and in the second innings I made no runs and it felt like I got a pair because the team lost. It is a hard game and you're never on top of this game the whole time.

"The Australian team is a great example, the last six months it has been an up and down journey and it will continue to be but the key is to try and be as consistent as you can possibly be as a team and as an individual player. In all the sport I have played as a kid growing up, I believe cricket is the hardest game but that is what keeps bringing you back.

"Days like today, when you have success and you win and you put in such a lot of hard work, we sit in the changeroom this afternoon and look around at each other and say all the hard work we have put in, it's worth it. But we went through the same pain that India is feeling right now 12 months ago, we lost the Ashes. It's really nice to be on the other side of the fence today."

The humiliation of that Ashes defeat has been in the back of Clarke's mind ever since that day in Sydney, when he gave frank and honest answers to the problems he saw, and took far more responsibility for the state of disrepair the team had fallen into than the Cricket Australia chief executive, James Sutherland, the coach Tim Nielsen, or the chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch. Of those three only Sutherland remains, a measure of the changes that swept through CA in 2011. Clarke took the loss particularly hard, and transformed his regrets into resolve.

"Individual players who were a part of last summer remember it very [clearly] and knew we had to do a lot of work to improve our games both personally and as a team," Clarke said. "It's a very special feeling to sit here beating India 4-0, knowing that last summer I couldn't buy a run."

It is doubly special for the fact that Clarke's transformation has come to mirror that of his team. The bowlers have been revitalised under the guidance of the bowling coach Craig McDermott, scything through India's batsmen with rare monotony. They have done it with discipline, fitness and an exemplary full length, an approach that has found swing and seam in the shot-lockers of bowlers who had looked straight up and down for long tracts of last summer. Peter Siddle epitomises this change more than most, and it was fitting that he sat alongside Clarke as the man of the match in Adelaide, having snipped five Indian wickets from their first innings when the pitch was still at its best. Nathan Lyon's spin has continued to develop quietly, the slow bowler's place not in question for the first time since Shane Warne retired.

Among the batsmen, Clarke has found another level of crispness and sharpness that had looked entirely out of his reach against England. With the company of the renewed Ricky Ponting he has forged the sorts of partnerships Australia desperately needed to cultivate, concentration unwavering and scoring rates pleasingly rapid. At the top of the order is a fledgling partnership between David Warner and Ed Cowan, a marriage of contrasts that deserves to be given time to develop further. Buttressing the order at No. 6 is Michael Hussey, one of few players to attain a high standard against England, and even fewer to reach it again against India. The only problem in the order is the meagre scoring of Shaun Marsh, but it is one that has a chance to be resolved over the next month of ODI and Sheffield Shield matches.

As important as either of the aforementioned skills, Australia's fielding has lifted enormously. Catches are taken when they must be, dropped chances are few, and run-outs are collected at encouragingly regular intervals. Brad Haddin, like Marsh a rare struggler in the series, improved markedly in Adelaide, and held a smart catch for the final wicket. As McDermott and Mickey Arthur have done well in their coaching posts, Steve Rixon has brought an old-time thoroughness and enjoyment to the fielding and catching drills, a trait Clarke recalled from his early days with New South Wales when he sought Rixon's addition to the coaching staff. As had been noted by the Argus review, fielding is a useful measure of a team's happiness as well as accomplishment.

In Adelaide, Clarke's men felt very little other than a sense of tremendous achievement, but their drive to destroy India had been overwhelmingly fuelled by the bad days of last summer. The pain then is part of the happiness now.