There are a lot of myths surrounding the art of captaining a cricket side; often the position is given way too much kudos and at the other end of the scale its value is drastically discounted.
In Australia, the captain is said to be more important than the prime minister. This is codswallop; many an Australian captain has led his team into battle but none have ever had to make the agonising decision to go to war. Conversely, former Australian leg-spinner Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly used to regularly write; “My Collie dog could captain a cricket team.”
Whilst I’m an avowed dog lover, I’m also well aware that they have masters and generally it’s cats who lead, their servants a merry dance. However, it’s indisputable that Australia’s apparent turn around in the current series is in large part due to Michael Clarke’s captaincy. It was not just his substantial innings at Old Trafford but also his thoughtful field placements.
By placing challenging fields Clarke, along with the accuracy of the bowlers, harried the English batsmen either into error or finding themselves becalmed. This pattern then continued in the fourth Test. The crowded on-side catching cordon Clarke has placed for both Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen reminded me of a similar ploy that evolved under Allan Border’s captaincy in 1989.
This cunning plan eventually eroded Graham Gooch’s confidence and ironically he’s now charged with the task of assisting the current England batsmen find a way out of this maze of fieldsmen. There’s no doubt Clarke is the most aggressive of the current crop of international captains. He has a good feel for the job and he’s tactically astute.
He’s also brave and this allows him to seek victory from the first ball, while understanding that occasionally this will lead to defeat. He hates losing but he doesn’t fear it and there’s a huge difference between those two emotions. The captain who fears losing will not always seek a win unconditionally, while the man who hates the thought of coming second will do all in his power to conjure up a victory.
Clarke’s counterpart, Alistair Cook, is more typical of the English breed and tends to err on the conservative side. He was very quick to push the field back at Old Trafford when Australia finally got on top and this suggested he was happy with a draw to retain the urn. Strangely, for a player who has been a run making machine since taking over the captaincy, Cook has been tentative in this Ashes series.
At times he has searched for the ball like a near-sighted man fumbling for his glasses. When it comes to placing fields, Cook is stock standard with very little imagination, while Clarke is much more likely to set an opposing batsman a stiff examination. On the score of gambling to claim a wicket, Clarke has the advantage with two wrist spinners in Steve Smith and David Warner who are more likely to produce “a magic ball’. Nevertheless, Cook was strangely reluctant to use Joe Root much at Old Trafford despite his reputation for being a bit of a golden arm.
Of the current captains, Clarke is the one least likely to resort to the modern fad of pushing fielders back to the boundary even though a batsman is new at the crease. This ploy defies logic in that it gives a good player easy runs. It’s even more difficult to understand when most captains are batsmen and surely must understand how much easier this makes building an innings.
Clarke’s weakness as a captain appears to be his understanding of the importance of the batting order. Part of this is due to his preference for batting at five but it’s also his misguided approach, which appears to be based on a typical pub raffle draw. Australia has a good stock of fast bowlers and this affords any captain a head start in the search for victory.
Clarke, having led the way back from the brink at Old Trafford, will be hoping he’s inspired a corresponding response from his fellow batsmen so Australia can confirm that performance was indeed a resurgence rather than just another mirage.