ASHES: A tale of two captains

The record books will say England won the Ashes without losing a game, but both Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook must feel frustrated by their performances.

The Oval, Day Four

The forecast was correct and the fourth day of the fifth Test at The Oval was formally abandoned at 4.05pm. A drizzle had set in at breakfast time and persisted until mid-afternoon when it began to pour so hard that deep puddles spread across the outfield. The only sound to be heard was of the squeegy mopping up surface water. This great cricket ground looked desolate.

Going into the last day, England are 246 behind Australia with six wickets standing. Only something utterly unpredictable, like the sun shining and England losing 16 wickets in less than a day, will prevent the match being drawn. Tomorrow’s forecast is not encouraging. The record books will say that England won the Ashes without losing a game.

But real cricket followers have a gene that enables then to overcome disenchantment with the weather. It involves historical comparisons, and contemporary analysis, laced with a barrage of statistics. This is a time to tell a tale of two captains.  

Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook are both most accomplished cricketers, by historical as well as present-day standards. They are not Don Bradman and Wally Hammond, but probably better than Steve Waugh and Nasser Hussain. Clarke’s Test average is 52.91; Cook’s 48.08. But both averages have fallen during this summer. In a series that has raised more questions than answers, both captains must feel deeply frustrated with their own performances.

Statistics tell part of the story. After nine innings, Clarke averages 44.25, but that is entirely as a consequence of his timely 180 at Old Trafford. In the other eight times at bat Clarke averages 23.71, with three scores in single figures and two more of less than 25.

Cook’s average after nine innings is 27. He has managed three half centuries, but all his other scores are 25 or less. His first wicket stand of 68 with Joe Root here was their first this summer to go beyond 50.

Cook’s timing has been suspect since the first Test at Trent Bridge, but the principal reason for his disappointing performance is that Australia have done their homework. Cook’s strengths are square of the wicket, off his hips to leg, and cutting hard through point. It does not require a genius to decide how to dilute these strengths. You don’t bowl down the leg side or short outside the off stump. Australia’s bowlers had not learned this lesson in 2010-11, however, when Cook cut a swath, with 766 runs in the series. Not this time.

Michael Clarke is a different case. Reporters who have followed his career now suspect that his crook back is making him increasingly vulnerable to short pitched bowling. Stuart Broad has caused him to flinch uncomfortably. There were moments during his brief innings at The Oval where he was almost embarrassing to watch. To add to his misfortune, Clarke was dismissed at Trent Bridge and Durham by identical, unplayable balls from James Anderson and Broad, both on a good length clipping the off stump bail.

The style of captaincy is a different matter. Here Clarke is way ahead on points. He is adventurous and ingenious, setting probing and provocative fields. He is especially fond of packing fielders in the leg side. Joe Root was caught at fly leg slip, having top edged a sweep that would have fallen well short of fine leg. (It is a heavily, diluted version of leg theory.) Using the same tactic against Jonathan Trott succeeded in seriously reducing his range of shots. The consistent failure of England’s top three batsmen to perform is proof of the success of Clarke’s tactics.

Cook, on the other hand, comes from the conservative school of English captains, like Andrew Strauss, his predecessor. When he posted eight men on the boundary towards the end of Australia’s first innings he was mocking attacking cricket. English determination to win is so overwhelming that they sometimes forget how to play.

This explains why they have won the Ashes, but the result is an unjust reflection on the balance of power.