Clarke bowed out a winner at The Oval on Sunday but the dead rubber demolition of England was a Pyrrhic victory that will do little to salve the 34-year-old’s one burning regret.
Having never won an Ashes away in four previous attempts, Clarke staked his legacy on bringing the sacred urn home and promptly lost with a game in hand.
Leading a team to Ashes defeat is a cardinal sin in cricket-mad Australia, so for many of his compatriots, his two failures in charge will forever bar him from the pantheon of his country’s great captains.
Similarly, his final tormented spells at the crease took the gloss from a fine record of 8,643 runs in 115 tests, tipping his average under 50, the mark often seen dividing the very best from the rest.
Poorer records have invoked wild adulation for players from other parts of the world. Australia, however, is its own country.
Local fans raised on a diet of Allan Border and Steve Waugh struggled to warm to millennial Clarke, a working class boy whose comfort with wealth and celebrity was at odds with the no-nonsense austerity of previous Australian captains.
A darling of Australia’s weekly gossip magazines, Clarke was less popular among local cricket media.
Portraits emerged of a player aloof in the dressing room whose disdain for time-honoured protocols occasionally ticked off senior team mates.
The Ferraris, supermodel girlfriends and underwear modelling grated with traditionalists, and Clarke’s first forays as captain drew jeers from home crowds.
Yet, in the soul-searching years after the calamitous loss in the 2010/11 Ashes, there were fewer comforting sights than the man nicknamed ‘Pup’ striding to the crease.
He battled a degenerative back condition throughout his career but carried the team with a Bradman-esque weight of runs and brilliantly marshalled a patched-up bowling attack.
“I’d place Clarke second only to Mark Taylor among Australia’s recent captains when it came to tactical awareness,” former captain Ian Chappell wrote on Espncricinfo.
A pair of golden summers book-ended a spectacular 2012 boasting a triple-century and a double at home against India before two more doubles against touring South Africa.
Even as the runs gushed from his bat, rumours swirled of dressing room disharmony.
A ham-fisted attempt to instil discipline during the ill-fated 2013 tour of India saw four players stood down in the infamous ‘homework-gate’ episode.
The Clarke-endorsed caper backfired badly and Australia were whitewashed 4-0 in the subcontinent before losing the Ashes 3-0 in England.
The team took back the urn with a brilliant 5-0 whitewash months later and though Clarke led from the front with centuries in the first two tests, his crowning moment would come at Newlands the following March.
Nursing a broken shoulder and peppered with bouncers, he saw off a brutal assault from South Africa’s pacemen to compile an unbeaten 161, setting up a rare series win away to the Proteas and securing his team the top ranking in tests.
The triumph was to prove the tipping point for both the team and player, however.
Australia’s reign as number one was fleeting, while age, hamstring injuries and the rise of Steven Smith would all push Clarke toward the exit.
The death of team mate Phillip Hughes struck Clarke like a hammer blow but his leadership in mourning comforted a nation.
Injured and grief-stricken, his stirring 128 against India in the Adelaide tribute match for Hughes was the last of his 28 test centuries.
Clarke’s refusal to surrender to his body frustrated as well as inspired, and a growing chorus of pundits urged him to quit.
He defied them all and helped Australia secure a fifth World Cup in March, scoring a half-century in the final in his last one-day international.
Another fairytale swansong beckoned in England and few in Australia begrudged his last tilt at bringing home the Ashes.
But the goodwill acquired over years evaporated in weeks as Clarke’s struggles on the English pitches confirmed him a spent force.
With ready-made replacement Smith waiting in the wings, a farewell test at The Oval seemed another needless indulgence for critics and Clarke was dismissed cheaply in the first innings.
He denied himself a last chance to make amends by having England bat again, his first and only enforcement of the follow-on.
The hunch proved astute, and Clarke walked off The Oval with a big win, though one unlikely to gild his legacy or ease the pain of another Ashes failure away from home.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)