When Michael Clarke is asked to reflect on Australia’s 2015 World Cup triumph he remembers the young superstars he had the pleasure of commanding in a tournament he had to beat the odds to be involved in.
Five years ago today – on March 29, 2015 – Clarke lifted the World Cup trophy alongside his jubilant teammates having comprehensively defeated New Zealand by seven wickets to secure Australia’s fifth title.
Clarke scored a brisk 74 from 72 balls, and even hit a six, in the run chase in front of 93,013 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in what was his last one-day international.
It capped off a dominant campaign with only one slip up – a thrilling one-wicket loss in the group stage to tournament co-hosts New Zealand, which served as a timely reminder that the Australians were not invincible.
Featured in the winning squad were youngsters the likes of Steve Smith, Mitch Starc, Glenn Maxwell, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Mitch Marsh, players who have become regulars in the national teams and a few who will go down as genuine greats of the game.
So for Clarke, his job as captain was not to control those young guns but simply get them ready for game day to let them express themselves on the field and produce match-winning performances.
“My message throughout the whole tournament was ‘play with freedom’,” Clarke tells cricket.com.au.
“The thing about the squad we picked is we had so many superstars who wanted to be on the big stage.
“There was a lot of big egos on the team and they wanted the bigger game, bigger crowd, bigger moment.
“For me it was about our training and preparation being so important because then all I wanted to do was allow these x-factor players – Faulkner, Maxwell, Warner, Starc, Smith – these superstars to get on stage and show the world how good they are, and that’s what happened.
“Those young x-factor players won us that World Cup because they wanted to shine on the big stage, but they did the hard work to allow them to shine on the big stage.
“Us older farts, we just sat back and clapped. They were unbelievable, brilliant.
“The game we lost against New Zealand, I know we got close, but it was the perfect little kick up the arse to make us all go, ‘Righto, we have to be at our best to win this tournament’.”
While Clarke was all smiles walking laps of the MCG with his comrades after the victory, his mood was completely different just five months earlier.
On the final day of the emotional Test match at the Adelaide Oval, Clarke ripped his right hamstring from the bone to put his playing career in serious jeopardy.
Surgery ruled him out of the Test summer against India but the medical team around Clarke was confident he could be back in time for the World Cup.
However, a change of plans from the hierarchy meant Clarke was at long-odds of being fit in time, but as he recalls, nothing was going to stop him.
“When I tore my hamstring and had surgery they told me it was a 12-week injury and I was given nine weeks to get myself fit,” Clarke says.
“I was told by surgeons, physios, doctors if I do all the right things they believed I could come back and then Rod Marsh and the selectors rang me two weeks later and said, ‘No, you’ve only got six weeks, you’ve got to be ready by an earlier date’.
“That’s when the doctors said it was going to be too hard, there was too much risk in re-tearing it.
“Alex Kountouris and I had a tough conversation. I said to ‘Lexi’ that I want to give this a crack, give it everything I’ve got and take that risk.
“To the credit of Alex, the surgeon and the doctor, they gave me all the rehab, all the exercises, all the strength and conditioning I needed to get myself right to pass a fitness test.
“But mentally, I was so driven on making that World Cup because it was always going to be special to play in front of your home fans.
“I knew it was going to be certainly my last World Cup, so I wanted to have a crack.
“I knew my body so well, I knew I was fit and healthy and had the discipline to do whatever it took to get right.
“Did I know if I could get back in six weeks? No, I didn’t know that, but I wasn’t going to give up.”
While he missed the first game, Clarke was back for the clash against New Zealand in Auckland and played every game from then.
As a captain, Clarke says he preferred to let his actions do the talking, which was why he was thrilled to see his enthusiastic players walk the walk and not talk the talk.
“What I love most about that World Cup, it wasn’t what we said, it was what we did,” he recalls.
“I hope I set the tone with that regarding me getting back on the field.
“It didn’t matter how many times somebody told me I wasn’t going to be fit or how many times I told the world I was going to be fit. That was irrelevant.
“If you say you’re going to be fit, go and get fit. If you’re going to play, go play.
“I just feel every single one of us said less and did more.”
The win in 2015 made Clarke a two-time World Cup champion, but he could not split the two when asked which one he treasured more.
But what did make it that extra special was the group of highly-talented young players he got to share the experience with after what had been a tumultuous summer for the Australian captain.
“I don’t like to compare 2007 and 2015, (they’re) both as special as each other,” he says.
“But personally, just what I went through with my hamstring and the loss of ‘Hughesy’ (Phillip Hughes, Clarke’s close friend who passed away in November 2014) and battles with Cricket Australia to get back into that team, out of everything what I’m most proud of is how the boys played throughout that whole tournament.
“How hard they trained, how disciplined with stuff off the field, they were so committed to our cause and our goal that I can say now five years on we deserved to win that World Cup.
“We did everything we needed to do to win that World Cup.
“Especially those young blokes – I loved having those guys in my team.”