The Ashes: Michael Clarke is not the only captain-in-waiting under pressure

Michael Clarke: Under pressure

For once there is a strange mood which has invaded Australian cricket, a mood seldom seen since the 1970s and the dying days of Kim Hughes’ reign.

It is a mutinous mood, a mood to turn against a colleague, team-mate and potential soon-to-be captain with senior players said to oppose the decision to name Michael Clarke as Ricky Ponting’s potential successor.

With Marcus North, Cameron White and even Callum Ferguson being named as other candidates for the position.

Doubtless this is precisely the sort of situation which Ponting will have wished to avoid on the brink of a huge Ashes series which could define both his captaincy and his future. But with a huge amount of focus on his vice captain, a vital player for his team, and potential rifts within the team, it is an awful lot to take on.

Clarke’s popularity has dwindled with the Australian public after some poor displays from the limited overs and T20 teams under his watch, while behind the scenes his comments about players putting club before country have caused consternation.

But such problems can easily be solved with a sense of diplomacy from Clarke and the Australian management. Communications can easily be repaired and bridges built, yet the one thing which the batsman could use now more than ever is with runs.

Clarke is under scrutiny as he has failed to perform with the bat both as a player and as captain. His form during the T20 World Cup, the ODI series against Sri Lanka and in the recent Test series against Pakistan and India was poor, and hence is position has been subjected to scrutiny as the pressure has built.

But whereas in politics,where crises can often be turned around by potential economic stability, the currency of the cricketer lies in wickets and runs. If Clarke, the batman, can fire plenty of runs and help lead his team’s batting effort-much in the manner of his current captain Ricky Ponting, it’ll help his case no end.

Critics can rarely take aim at a batsman who is outperforming his compatriots and these, plus vibrancy both as a confidante to Ponting and in the field and within the team environment can help solve any sense of crisis which has developed around him.

Because beyond the criticisms of his attitude both as a team-mate and captain, the selectors anointed Clarke because he remains the ideal candidate to lead Australia once Ponting departs, being both a leading player and at the ideal age to takeover as captain.

Meanwhile it should also be remembered that Clarke is not the only captain-in-waiting who is under pressure in this Ashes series.

Following a poor summer where the same technical failings that have plagued his game for the past two years continued to undermine him, Alastair Cook finds himself under close scrutiny.

Alastair Cook: Another vice captain under pressure

A pair of failures in the opening tour match have hardly helped matters, especially after Cook had spent the latter part of the summer scoring reassuring runs in County Cricket and prior to the tour spoke of returning to his old method with plenty of success.

But having impressed plenty with his captaincy credentials last Winter in Bangladesh, almost one year on, and Cook’s game is being picked apart by pundits and critics who are putting the pressure on him to provide a fitting defence for his position.

Despite a good record in Test matches, and a lack of significant options to compete with as opener, the England selectors will want someone who can justify his place in the team and perhaps be a leading player.

On current form, Cook would not fulfil either criteria, though he does have plenty of time to live up to the billing, but a run of failures in this high pressure, high stakes series could harm his cause.

He, like Clarke, needs to reassert his case as the captain in waiting. The best way to do this is to score runs, and lots of them. To prove that his method can work, and he can lend real support to those who champion his cause as England’s next Test captain.

His need is not as dire as Clarke’s, whose role is under far more scrutiny and who could find himself thrust into captaincy far sooner than his counterpart due to the security enjoyed by Strauss rather than Ponting as captain and his comparitively short spell in the role.

But both still need runs and plenty of them, if they are to justify their positions not just as vice captains and those set aside for them in the future.

While the usual Ashes refrain is to target the captain of the opposition, training their sights on the vice captain’s, both of whom need to reassert their cases, could also be a means to undermine and disrupt their opponents, not just in this campaign but in the one’s that lie ahead.

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Alastair Cook’s loss of form opens the England door to County contenders

As the England test team begins to enter the final straight in their quest to retain the Ashes they appear for the first time in years to be entering an away series in Australia in better shape than their bitter rivals.

While Australia continue be concerned by the fluctuating form of both bowlers and batsman, for Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower this has been a remarkably tranquil period where stability and success have gone hand in hand over the past year.

However the one cloud on England’s horizon is the form of vice captain Alastair Cook.

Cook's loss of form is a real worry for England

After a dramatically poor English summer, it is easy to forget what a productive winter Cook had with a century against South Africa and two against Bangladesh in his first tour as captain.

But now just a matter of months later, Cook looks all at sea. After spending the latter part of last summer working on technical issues which had plagued him during the Ashes he appeared to have hit upon a method which was working.

Yet now the technical issues have re-emerged, with a continued flaw outside off stump making him a target for a fuller ball. As his former Essex team-mate Nasser Hussain commented during Friday’s painstaking innings of 17, “his technique is shot”.

The question now is what do England do with their vice captain. Continuity has been a staple part of their success, and Cook is a vital part of that. Yet with an Ashes Winter looming, can England afford to persevere with their vice captain and back him to come good?

Given Cook’s record you wouldn’t bet against him making a battling hundred in his next innings, but should his woes continue then perhaps the kindest thing to do would be to take him out to allow a refresh and a rethink.

Such a tactic worked for Andrew Strauss when he struggled with his form in 2008 before returning with a battling 177 against New Zealand, it could well work with Cook.

Jonathan Trott: Ready to open?

England are not short of credible candidates who could step up in Cook’s place. The one name among the current team is to suggest pushing Jonathan Trott up to open with Ian Bell coming in at number 3.

Though quite whether England would be willing to jeopardise the success Trott has had as a number 3 in favour of trying him in an opening position he is unaccustomed to, is another matter.

Another option could be to dip into the county cricket pool, which has proved particularly productive for them in recent years given the success of Trott and Morgan over the past 12 months.

Two names standout in the county championship so far this season, Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth and Hampshire’s Michael Carberry.

Adam Lyth: Breakthrough season

Lyth, who sits atop of the run scorers list, is a left handed opener who has enjoyed something of a breakthrough season this year after struggling to break into the Yorkshire team last season.

At 22 he still has plenty of improving to do, but he is well organised and keen to attack at every opportunity-very much a Flower/Strauss sort of batsman.

Carberry on the other hand was capped by England during the Bangladesh tour, where he admittedly struggled-top scoring with 34.

Carberry: Scoring runs for fun

Despite failing to shine, he has enjoyed a fruitful county season-recently scoring two centuries against Durham in Hampshire’s last County game.

A powerful hitter, an excellent fielder and a thoroughly capable batsman, he has plenty of fans including Shane Warne, and remains very much in England’s thoughts as James Whittaker has been a regular at the Rose Bowl this year.

There are certainly options if Cook’s fortunes continue to fade. While his record automatically ensures he will be in the squad for the Ashes trip, only time will tell if he remains in the starting XI.

Competition in a squad is something Andy Flower has wanted for a long time, and Alastair Cook certainly has competition for his place, from both in and outside this England squad.