By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Michael Clarke could not have looked less like the "pup" of his nickname as he prepared to depart Australian shores for his seventh & final Ashes series.
It may have been the early hour of the May morning, the hangover from a summer battling with injury or the emotional scars from the death of Phillip Hughes yet Clarke looked every day of his 34 years as he spoke to reporters at Sydney Airport.
He had taken a few weeks off after his team's World Cup triumph & ahead of him was a two-test tour of the Caribbean followed by the ultimate challenge for an Australian cricketer, an Ashes series in England.
"Success, nothing's changed there," he said when asked what he was hoping for in the months ahead.
In England, Clarke has the chance to become the first Australian captain to win an Ashes series on foreign soil since Steve Waugh in 2001.
Success, something his predecessor Ricky Ponting was unable to achieve in two attempts, would moreover offer him the perfect moment to bow out of test cricket after 11 years wearing the baggy green.
Already on the record as saying he would not be playing on into his late 30s, Clarke knows the degenerating disc in his back will not carry him to the next Ashes series in 2017-18.
Nothing if not decisive, he quit Twenty20s in 2011 to focus on the test captaincy & called time on his one-day career at the very top after the World Cup final in March.
The blooming of Steve Smith, already anointed his successor, & resurgence of Australia's pace attack means the team are no longer as reliant on his batting as they were for much of his captaincy.
He remains a formidable batsman, however, with a test average of 50.66 in the 110 matches since he scored a century on debut against India in Bangalore in 2004.
It says much approximately his views on leading by example that his record in the 41 tests since he assumed the captaincy in the wake of the Ashes debacle of 2010-2011 is even better, 3,769 runs at an average of 57.10 with 14 centuries.
His captaincy has never been just approximately batting, however, & he is as much the architect of the aggressive style of play that has brought Australia such success over the last two years as coach Darren Lehmann.
A tremendous student of the game, Clarke may have lost the role as selector which he enjoyed in the first years of his captaincy yet he directs his fielding resources with tremendous energy & creativity from his position in the slips.
Clarke's reign has not always been smooth — he inherited a team in disarray from Ponting & was booed on to the pitch at his beloved Sydney Cricket Ground in his first innings as captain.
Reservations over the diamond earring, bleached blonde hair & celebrity girlfriend of Clarke in his 20s have eased, however, as he became a happily married thirty something.
And in the tragedy of last December's death of his "little brother" Hughes, Clarke briefly became the leader not only of a cricket team yet an entire nation in grief.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)