By Andrew Webster
Andrew Webster is the Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald
In the lead-up to the Sydney Test, the Australian team enjoyed a barbecue at the luxury South Coogee home of opening batsman Dave Warner. The six-bedroom, five-bathroom, three-level mansion reportedly cost Warner and his fiancee Candice Falzon $6.5 million last year. It was made famous two years earlier as the set for the UK reality TV show Geordie Shore.
On the surface, there is nothing exceptional about the Australian side's pre-match get-together, save for the person who wasn't there. That Michael Clarke bizarrely didn't attend is a glimpse into the hurricane that is forming ahead of the World Cup and onwards to July to an Ashes defence on English soil.
How the final chapter of Clarke's career plays out will make Geordie Shore as eventful as Romper Room. Almost everyone involved in Australian cricket knows about it, is talking about it, and wonders where it will all end.
Probably in tears.
Clarke is at war with his superiors. And, as much as he belligerently holds onto the idea of playing for his country again, it is also clear his teammates have moved on without him.
In Steve Smith they trust. It's that simple.
Former South African captain Graeme Smith probably doesn't know how close to the bone he cut when he said this last week: "Michael has been an outstanding captain, but is more of an abrasive personality. It will be interesting to see now that they have been under Smith for the last few months and if Michael moves back into that space, how then that shifts the personality of the team."
There are two issues at play here: Clarke's broken relationship with Cricket Australia management and his relationship with his teammates.
The captain has been on a collision course for months with almost every level of the Cricket Australia hierarchy, from chief executive James Sutherland to high-performance manager Pat Howard to chairman of selectors Rod Marsh to coach Darren Lehmann. Some officials complain he's refused to return their phone calls.
Part of the tension is about team selections. When Queensland batsman Joe Burns was selected for the Boxing Day Test, Clarke was said to be angry about not being consulted.
Yet much of the animosity concerns his dodgy hamstrings and lower back problems.
There's a case for being the ultimate competitor, doing everything possible to get on to the field. On this score, Clarke has to be admired. There's another case for being an unwanted distraction for the team.
It was going to come to a head on November 25 as Clarke vaingloriously told anyone who would listen of his desire to play in the first Test against India at the Gabba.
The day before, he publicly contradicted Marsh about playing in a two-day warm-up match in Adelaide to prove his fitness.
Sutherland and others had enough of it. They were going to rule him out of the Test side and select Phillip Hughes.
Then everything changed.
Later that day, a Sean Abbott bouncer felled Hughes at the SCG and two days later the batsman's life support was turned off.
Clarke, his teammates and officials were united in grief. The skipper was the definitive leader as they laid their friend to rest in his home town of Macksville.
Suddenly, Cricket Australia suits changed their tune. They wanted their inspirational captain in the side for the rescheduled Test in Adelaide, where he scored a ton and tore a hammy.
Now, though, the issue of Clarke's future has flared again.
Privately, he is furious about selectors setting a deadline of February 21 — the second pool match against Bangladesh — to prove his fitness for the World Cup after hamstring surgery.
An eternal optimist and tireless when it comes to preparation, Clarke is adamant he will be fit – although most behind the scenes tell you he is a slim prospect at best.
They predict he won't recover in time, and that's when the hurricane will hit. Clarke's camp says he had initially been given until March 4 — the fourth pool match against Afghanistan — to prove his fitness.
There has either been a major miscommunication or Cricket Australia is setting up its own captain to fail.
If Clarke is ruled out, expect fireworks. At the very least, he will want to play Sheffield Shield cricket for NSW to prove a point. The Blues are already saying they don't want to be caught in the middle of the fight.
Meanwhile, in the Australian dressing-room, those in baggy greens are humming along quite nicely. They have seen life without the Clarke sideshow and they quite like it.
Smith is a laid-back character who carries a form guide in his back pocket. Clarke has often been described as a player who would rather spend time with celebrity mates.
And Clarke has no greater celebrity mate than Shane Warne. It was never more obvious how close the pair are than during their stint together in the Channel Nine commentary box.
During the Brisbane Test, Clarke was effectively commentating on the match via his own Twitter feed. He also retweeted a post from a fan who demanded he be part of the Nine commentary team while injured.
Like magic, Clarke was there in the middle of the MCG on Boxing Day, with a Nine microphone in hand.
For Nine, securing Clarke for the Melbourne and Sydney Tests was a coup. For Clarke, joining the commentary team of past players while still playing was an air swing.
He might've been insightful, he might've shown where his future will be in retirement, but many of his teammates were far from impressed as their captain openly discussed strategies, technique and what players were thinking and should be doing in the centre.
It was dangerous territory for a current captain to traverse. For instance, each time he passed comment on Shane Watson it was nearly impossible not to recall the ugly fallout between the pair in India in 2013.
Clarke's teammates were also said to be less pleased with his appearance in the dressing-room during those Tests.
It's been argued that Clarke was there for rehab purposes. Others say his presence was odd and a distraction.
How does Clarke return to a successful side? If at all?
He has been a polemic figure inside and outside the dressing-room almost every step of his undulant career. A platoon of former players often ask whether Clarke puts himself ahead of the baggy green.
Doubtless, he will see this column as an attack. It is not.
His decency and selflessness were there for all to see when Hughes died.
Yet everywhere you stepped this summer, the topic of conversation among some of the highest echelons of Australian cricket hasn't been about Warner's sparkling form, or Smith's captaincy, or whether Warney is single or not.
It was about Clarke and the hurricane looming on the horizon.
For a player who has played more than 100 Tests, scored more than 8000 runs, and captained Australia to an unforgettable Ashes victory, you would ideally hope his career finishes in dignity.
From Ferraris to being grabbed by Simon Katich by the throat at the SCG to Bingle-gate to Homework-gate to this latest imbroglio, it seems certain to end as it has always been.
Like an episode of Geordie Shore, probably in tears.