The Ashes: a captain’s reckoning

If Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke want to understand just how the Ashes can redefine a captain’s legacy, then they needn’t travel far. The Oval, in fact, would be a good place to start – at the door of Ricky Ponting, whose reputation as a captain suffered so greatly as the loser of two Ashes’ series to the English that it tends to overshadow the fine work he did as a leader of a fine Australian team and leading some of the finest cricketers of any generation. Yet that is what the Ashes can do, make or break captains.

One senses that Michael Clarke was aware of that fact, when he opted to tackle the issue head-on in his press conference, summising: “I’ve read it will make or break my reputation as a captain. Personally, I don’t feel like that.”

He may not, but as the great Vince Lombardi opined: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”.

The history of the great and good of English and Australian captains have been shaped by the Ashes. Allan Border’s reputation as a captain is forever forged by the “Mr Grumpy” persona which emerged during his team’s all-conquering 1989 tour. Or could an Englishman name any other opponent which the great Len Hutton or Ray Illingworth defeated in a series, yet the Ashes remain indelibly linked to their name and their successes in those series are writ large in their reputation.

Or consider a recent example – Andrew Strauss. The former England captain, who has entered retirement with his reputation as a leader of high standing still intact, has largely found his greatness built upon the back of his statesman-esque turns in two Ashes series, whilst ignoring the fact that he couldn’t topple the best Test team in the world and found himself at loggerheads with his finest batsman. If the assessment of Strauss’ captaincy is a little harsh in pointing out the (few) wrongs, it only goes show how Ashes success can overshadow all flaws, however small, and forge reputations.

Yet while reputations can be made, they can easily be broken. Nasser Hussain’s captaincy career was fortunate to survive that call on the first day in 2003, and while his tenacity and tactical nous as captain were seldom disputed, his misfortune in coming up against a rampant Australian team means he may never quite get the respect afforded to his predecessors, nor too Michael Atherton, a respected captain of England, but one whose career could never quite conquer the Everest that was winning the urn. Then consider Kim Hughes, a young man, a young captain, but one for whom the Ashes and Ian Botham would haunt quite remarkably and whose repute as a player and as a leader, is forever associated with those events of 1981.

What history tells us is that both Clarke and Cook should be wary of what the Ashes may bring. Both are new to this (ignoring Clarke’s one Test in 2010), and both will soon realise that if playing in the Ashes is very different to every other Test match, captaining in one is a whole different matter altogether.

Clarke, unlike Cook, has had time to forge a considerable reputation as a captain – a sparky, exciting, aggressive captain perhaps like his mate Shane Warne could have been, he has been a bastion of excellence in Australia’s era of ordinary, and at times singlehandedly kept them standing. But Australian’s love winners, and Clarke has yet to prove definitively that his method can bring them victories and that he can make this team a winning one.

He is hardly helped by having a team weakened considerably with the departures of Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting, but nor has some of the disciplinary issues dogging Australia’s tour of India and now of England, been a positive reflection of the man management within the camp. Cricket Australian may have believed it was Micky Arthur who was at fault, but it is hard to imagine such matters occurring so damagingly on the watch of a Border or a Waugh.

While for Cook, it is a different matter. His reputation as a captain is in it’s relative infancy, and while he appears to be akin to his predecessor, Strauss, in being a man who puts great store in patience and plans without great innovations. He appears to be well respected, capable of leading the way with word but mainly by deed in letting his bat do the talking, yet on the field his method has yet to show the spark of genius which inhabits Clarke’s captaincy modus operandi. And such an approach can, if it doesn’t yield results, can quickly cause the critics to turn. More importantly, unlike Clarke, Cook’s must also cope with that great captaincy killer – expectation. He is succeeding a serial Ashes winner, with a team which is clearly fancied as the favourites by the fans, the pundits and the bookmakers (who normally know better than most), and yet if the wins do not come as many expect, then the pressure inevitably will grow on a young captain with an awful lot to lose.

The reality for both is that the next 10 Test matches will do more to forge their reputation as a captain than any other they play for the rest of their career – Michael Clarke, winning captain of the Frank Worrell trophy, doesn’t quite have the same ring as Michael Clarke, winning captain of the Ashes. Given the limited lifespan of current international captains, it is not inconceivable that come the next Ashes series in 2015, both England and Australia could have new captains in post.

Thus for both, the next 10 matches become even more critical. Whatever the outcome, one man will win, and the other will lose, and their reputations could well be determined by the Ashes, a captain’s great reckoner.

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