Clarke, Cook and captaincy

As captains and batsmen, Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook have set a benchmark and, going by their current performances, the Ashes may well throw up a sumptuous face-off, writes Arun Venugopal.

Captaincy in cricket comes with its attendant pressures, not least the endless flow of wisdom on how to go about the job. One strongly recommended advice — that will never go out of fashion — is ‘lead by example.’ Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook — Test and ODI skippers of Australia and England respectively — in recent times, have done that and more.

Both have quite a few things in common. Topping the list would be a century on debut against India in India; Clarke achieved the feat in Bangalore (2004) while Cook’s magical hour came in Nagpur (2006). Anointed as prodigies and regarded for their striking intelligence, they were groomed for leadership roles right from the beginning.

After serving as Ricky Ponting’s understudy for a year, Clarke took over as captain of Australia’s Twenty20 side in 2009. Two years later, he was leading the Test and ODI teams. Not that everything was handed out on a golden platter. Clarke had to endure — and overcome — trying professional and personal phases.

A dressing room altercation with Simon Katich was followed by his much-publicised break-up with fiancée Lara Bingle. The 31-year-old was also the preferred target of the Australian media and the public, sections of which had booed him in Melbourne and Brisbane during the ODI series against England in January 2011. The perception of Clarke as ‘soft’ and ‘un-Australian’ resulted in him occupying a lowly place on the popularity charts.

But the New South Welshman, nicknamed ‘Pup’ when he first came into the team, simply worked towards taking his batting to the next level. On a pacers’ haven in Cape Town last year, Clarke produced a defiant 151 in a losing cause. Undeterred, he pounded India with an unbeaten 329 in Sydney, paving the way for a 4-0 whitewash.

With back-to-back double tons against South Africa, Clarke became the first cricketer to register four 200-plus scores in a calendar year. He impressed as a tactician too, enforcing bold and selfless declarations. Clarke is the kind of captain who isn't merely content with gaining a position of strength; he looks to drive the game forward, towards a result. A recent example is the manner in which he set up the first Test against Sri Lanka with a busy second-innings fifty on the fourth day in Hobart.

Clarke’s adventurous ways have also resulted in him tossing the ball frequently to non-regular bowlers: quite a few overs have been coaxed out of Michael Hussey, David Warner, and even ’keeper Matthew Wade with reasonable success.

Clarke had finally begun to “earn respect.” Ponting’s retirement means that Clarke would have to gather his mentoring instincts and guide the rookies in the team as it embarks on new territories. What of Cook then? The fresh-faced Bedford School alumnus has thus far handled everything thrown at him with reassuring equanimity. In his first series as full-time Test captain, Cook conquered one of the toughest terrains in world cricket — India. Although he remained tactically conservative during the course of England’s 2-1 victory, Cook was firm without being overbearing.

It’s believed that the tall left-hander, who turned 28 last Christmas, had a key part to play in Kevin Pietersen’s ‘reintegration’ into the side. Like Clarke, who leans on Shane Warne for counsel, Cook too is surrounded by sane voices. Articulate and measured, he is ably supported by fellow Essex men — team director Andy Flower and batting coach Graham Gooch (who first exhorted Cook to score “daddy hundreds”).

In the course of his three consecutive centuries against India, Cook earned the distinction of being the first man to score five hundreds in his first five matches as captain (the other two coming against Bangladesh in 2010 when he was stand-in skipper). He also became the youngest ever cricketer to reach the 7,000-run mark. Moreover, he does a Ponting every now and then, by fielding at silly point or short leg — positions normally reserved for greenhorns. Not for him the high horse of authority.

2013 would see both the captains helming relatively young teams for the two Ashes series and the stakes will, obviously, be very high. Australia is a team in transition; the retirements of Ponting and Michael Hussey indicate that the batting flank needs some strengthening. In pace bowling lies the core strength of either side but with Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar in its ranks, England’s spin attack scores over Australia’s.

England may currently hold the edge in the man-to-man assessment, but there’s still quite some cricket to be played before the Ashes begin. First, England will meet New Zealand away and at home, while Australia completes its engagements against Sri Lanka and plays a limited-overs tournament against West Indies. Australia will then embark on a more challenging tour of India.

All these assignments will help shape more nuanced opinions on their captaincy styles, which are still in the evolutionary stage.

This much, however, is clear: as captains and batsmen, Clarke and Cook have set a benchmark and, going by their current performances, the Ashes may well throw up a sumptuous face-off.