Clarke reveals struggles after South Africa
As Australia prepares for a campaign that will herald more than two years of virtually non-stop cricket, captain Michael Clarke has revealed that many of his players "were on the brink of breaking" at the end of their most recent overseas Test assignment in South Africa.
Clarke will lead a 14-man squad to Harare later this week to take part in a two-week tri-series against South Africa and Zimbabwe, Australia's first international commitment since they crashed out of the ICC World T20 in Bangladesh more than four months ago.
It represented a rare period of rest and recuperation for all but a handful of the nation's foremost men's players and an opportunity for most to undergo a full 'pre-season' fitness campaign to prepare themselves for a schedule that appears as daunting as it is packed.
Following the Zimbabwe series, Australia will play Tests and limited-overs matches against Pakistan in the UAE and then host South Africa and England in limited-overs fixtures plus Tests and white ball matches against India before the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
After that tournament, they head to the West Indies for Tests and limited-overs matches before more than three months in the UK which includes the 2015 Ashes series before a Test series in Bangladesh.
New Zealand, the West Indies and India are then scheduled to tour Australia during the summer of 2015-16 after which the Australians will travel to New Zealand, South Africa and Sri Lanka ahead of another hectic 2016-17 home summer.
While it's unlikely many players will negotiate all those matches in all three forms of the international game (as well as Champions League and Indian Premier League commitments), even those restricted to Test match participation can suffer from the workload as Clarke's men discovered earlier this year.
A schedule of 17 Test matches in the space of 12 months in India, England, Australia and South Africa (including back-to-back five-Test Ashes series) left a number of players in desperate need of the lengthy break that mercifully followed.
And Clarke told cricket.com.au that if the sabbatical had not been mandated there was no doubt a number of his charges would have been compelled to take remedial time off regardless.
"A lot of individuals would have needed that break anyway, so if there wasn't a break in the schedule I think guys would have got injured because we were on the brink of breaking in that last series in South Africa," Clarke said.
"We were all pretty fatigued, mentally as well as physically.
"So the squad certainly needed this break, and it's given us the chance to freshen up, get our fitness back together and make sure we're ready for a big two years ahead.
"I think everybody is sick of training at this stage.
"We've done a lot of fitness, a lot of batting, bowling, fielding at practice and guys now want to start playing some games."
That chance will arrive next Monday (Aug 25) when Australia plays their first match of the six-game round-robin series against Zimbabwe at the Harare Sports Club.
Clarke, who finished the South Africa series with a fractured shoulder sustained while batting in the final Test, was one of the few players to have taken a complete break from the game apart from the Australians' mid-year training camp at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane.
A number of others, including Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson and David Warner, took a break after their involvement in the IPL ended at the start of June, while Peter Siddle, Chris Rogers and Glenn Maxwell were among those who headed to England to play county cricket.
Ryan Harris took the opportunity to undergo surgery for a much-needed clean out of his troublesome knee and remains hopeful of being fit for the Test series against India beginning in December.
And while Watson was an early casualty of the pre-Zimbabwe training camp when he stepped on a ball and badly sprained his ankle, forcing him out of the tour, coach Darren Lehmann is confident the skills work undertaken in Brisbane over recent days will help to blow away any cobwebs.
"It (did), for lots of reasons," Lehmann told cricket.com.au when asked if the recent break had come at a vital time.
"Personally, blokes can get away from the game, coaches can get away from the game for a little bit.
"Professionally, everyone was tired – coaches were tired, players were very tired and they did an amazing amount of work in 12 months so to get a break before we go on the road for two years was pretty important.
"Now the (challenge) is getting us back up to the skill level that we need to compete at international cricket because we've had the break and we’ll have to get that very quickly because we've got Zimbabwe and South Africa and then we've obviously got a big test in (the UAE).
"I think everyone is jumping out – they just want to play.
"From my point of view we've got to get them up-skilled quick enough to compete at international level and then keep them there for a long period of time which is going to be a challenge but everyone is fresh and that's what you want to start with.
"So we're going to be a bit rusty with the skills, but that's okay.
"We're gonna make mistakes, but that's okay.
"What we need to do is build and build and build to become a better Test side, a better one-day side, a better Twenty20 side."
But even though some major individual enticements await over the next year, most notably the chance to be part of a rare World Cup campaign on home soil as well the first Australian team to win an Ashes series in England since 2001, Clarke is warning his players not to lift their eyes beyond their immediate assignment.
"I think selectors and Darren Lehmann especially need to look a lot further ahead than players do," he said of the cluster of cricket that fills planning spreadsheets devoted to the next two years and beyond.
"It's really important that we, as a playing group, stay focused on what's in front of us.
"I guess I've experienced throughout my career that as soon as you start looking too far ahead you start seeing things you might never get to.
"It's about consistent performance, no matter who you're playing in what conditions.
"You have to find a way to be performing, to stay in the team and to help the team have success.
"If you look at our next block of two years there's a lot of cricket, and some really important cricket as well so that's exciting for us.
"But I think that's for others to focus on and work out what teams they're thinking, what players they're thinking for conditions all around the world over the next two years.
"For us, it’s about performing well."
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cricket Australia
First Posted 18 August, 2014 9:46AM AEST