Michael Clarke's Long Layoff Will Prove Beneficial for the Australian Captain

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2014

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 04:  Michael Clarke speaks to media during a Cricket Australia World Number One Mace Presentation at Cricket Australia Centre of Excellence on June 4, 2014 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
Chris Hyde/Getty Images

The last time Michael Clarke was spotted on a cricket field, he was celebrating Australia's dramatic victory over South Africa in Cape Town that secured a 2-1 series triumph for the visitors.

A remarkable feat for Clarke and his men, yes. But perhaps more remarkable is how distant that compelling afternoon of March 5 feels.

Since the last sighting of the Australian captain, Sri Lanka have captured the Asia Cup and the ICC World Twenty20, the Kolkata Knight Riders have lifted the Indian Premier League trophy, the Barbados Tridents have celebrated an equivalent title in the Caribbean and the Birmingham Bears have done the same in England.

In the Test arena, New Zealand have defeated the West Indies, Sri Lanka have conquered England, England have thrashed India, South Africa have edged out Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka have cruised past Pakistan and South Africa have swept aside Zimbabwe. 

There's also been a smattering of largely inconsequential one-day internationals in that time.

Yet Clarke, one of the finest players in the game, hasn't taken part in single minute of it. Despite the unrelenting nature of cricket's calendar, the 33-year-old has enjoyed a layoff that would seem almost fictional, unimaginable even, for the bulk of modern cricketers.

In all, it's been almost six months, or 176 days, since Clarke last crossed the rope in uniform. 

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 05: Michael Clarke of Australia leads his team from the field after winning the game during day 5 of the third test match between South Africa and Australia at Sahara Park Newlands on March 5, 2014 in Cape Town, South Afric
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

The Aussie skipper, of course, was desperately in need of a break following six home Tests against South Africa and Sri Lanka, a tumultuous tour of India, back-to-back Ashes contests and a visit of the Rainbow nation in a 17-month period that began in late 2012.

"If there wasn't a break in the schedule I think guys would have got injured because we were on the brink of breaking," Clarke told cricket.com.au last week, when asked about the layoff since touring South Africa.

"We were all pretty fatigued, mentally as well as physically."

For the captain, "breaking" is certainly the right description. 

Already owning a chronic lower-back issue, Clarke had his shoulder cracked during a barrage from Morne Morkel at Newlands, a torrid spell that came in the middle of a defiantly brilliant hundred from the Australian. 

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 01:  Michael Clarke of Australia goes down after getting hit by a delivery from Morne Morkel of South Africa during day one of the third test match between South Africa and Australia at Newlands cricket ground on March 1, 2
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

But it's that perpetual lower-back complaint that continues to be a concern, with Clarke ruled out of much of Australia's one-day series in Zimbabwe with a hamstring injury—a problem regularly caused by back issues.

The solution, Clarke feels, is to adjust his travel schedule.

"What I've learned through my career is that I probably need more time than most in regards to the gap between getting off a plane and training at full intensity," he said in Harare, Zimbabwe, according to the Daily Telegraph. 

"Generally when I travel to the UK there aren't too many times that I haven't got injured at the start of the series," he added, alluding to the problems he experienced ahead of the 2013 Ashes series in England.

"If it means I have to fly a couple of days earlier than the boys on the long trips, that's what I've got to do."

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 02:  Michael Clarke of Australia addresses the media following an Australian training session at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 2, 2014 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

The issue, now, is whether such a long layoff will benefit the prolific run-getter. There's a difference between a break and six months with your feet up, after all.

Positively, Clarke can look to his glittering record for both confidence and reassurance as he steps back onto the international stage.

Indeed, since his debut in India in 2004, the decorated right-hander has amassed 2,888 runs at an average of 55.54 in his first Test of each of the 34 series he's competed in. That average jumps up to 71.41 in such matches since ascending to the captaincy. 

History, therefore, suggests Clarke's degenerative discs in his lower back haven't caused him to be a slow starter when returning to the coalface after spells—both long and short—away from the game. 

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 23: Australian captain Michael Clarke celebrates scoring a century during day three of the First Ashes Test match between Australia and England at The Gabba on November 23, 2013 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Cameron Spe
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The degenerative nature of his lower-back issue also heightens the importance of the Australian captain's extended break. 

Clarke has spoken in the past of the problem becoming irritated "when I am in flexion and I rotate"—the sort of position and movement that form part of nearly every action he completes on the field. The time needed to treat flare-ups is taking longer than it did previously too. 

For the Australian leader, it means regular conditioning isn't the sole and simple answer. As a degenerative condition, rest is also needed to slow that process, given that the problem will be with him for the entirety of his international existence. And beyond. 

So as Australia eye a two-year schedule of almost non-stop cricket, Clarke's near six-month layoff could prove to be among the most significant spells of his career.

"I think everyone is jumping out—they just want to play," coach Darren Lehmann said ahead of his team's involvement in the triangular series in Zimbabwe. 

"Everyone is fresh and that's what you want to start with," he added.

The freshness is more beneficial to Clarke than any other.