Michael Clarke and Chris Read: The Two Sides to Captaincy

Captaincy, as Richie Benaud once said, “is ninety percent luck and 10 percent skill, but just don’t try it without the ten percent”. In an era where the captaincy brain drain is felt more keenly than most both at a domestic and international level, this past week has shown that Benaud’s sentiments still remain true today.

Firstly in the Caribbean there was Michael Clarke’s bold declaration for Australia against the West Indies, setting Darren Sammy’s team a target of 215 to win with little more than 60 overs, was a carrot worth dangling with rain in the air and a fragile batting line-up to prey upon. In the end rain curtailed the contest, but it was Clarke’s declaration which gave us one in the first place.

It was a bold move, especially given the history of West Indian sides chasing against Australian ones in the past decade, but was a fitting symbol of Clarke’s captaincy which has not so much defied expectations as completely redefined them. About 18 months ago Clarke was losing popularity polls to Marcus North and Cameron White (look what’s happened to those two) in the race to succeed Ricky Ponting but it’s hard to imagine anyone else being as comfortable in the role as Clarke has.

He has carved out his own niche as a captain. His bold and daring field placing suggest that his friendship with Shane Warne has rubbed off on him, and unlike many of his peers he seeks to take wickets first and foremost rather than opt for containment – ask yourself how many international captains would have set such a daring target? While the leadership has elevated his batting to a new level – he averages 58 with the bat, as a cricketer it has made him complete. In an era where few dare, Clarke does.

Yet while Clarke’s sparky contribution suggested a captain at the peak of his powers tactically, it was the contribution of one of the more underrated cricketers of this era which was a true embodiment of one of those other qualities befitting the finest captains – the ability to lead by example. While Chris Read and Clarke may make unlikely kinfolk, they share one thing in common: captaincy appears to have brought the best out of both of them.

Read’s abilities are well known and brought with them England recognition, but there was always a questionmark about his capacity to cope mentally with the rigours of international cricket (normally voiced by Duncan Fletcher) which dogged his quest for a regular spot as England wicket keeper. Yet if there were any doubts about Read’s capacity to perform under pressure, his performances as Nottinghamshire captain ought to have alleviated them – not least his latest effort against Somerset.

Read’s reign has not just been wildly successful both in terms of silverware and accolades – County Championship and Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2010 – but like Clarke it has raised his game to another level as he frequently plays the role of finisher or saviour depending on circumstances. Yet for all the previous efforts, he will be hard pressed to play a more impressive lone hand for the rest of his career.

While his much vaunted top order fell to a series of injudicious strokes, it was left to Read to save the day and after striding out at 5-34 he scored a magnificent 104* in a total of 162 where only one other batsman on his team reached double figures. But for that effort, Nottinghamshire could have crumbled and ultimately it allowed them to escape with a draw on the final day, which was scant reward for Read’s efforts, which even the great cricketing leaders-by-example like Graeme Smith or Ricky Ponting would have been proud of.

And perhaps that is what both he and Clarke have shown this week. That there are two sides to captaincy – a tactical side and a temperamental side which both have a role in their ability to lead, but according to Benaud that’s 10% of it, the rest is luck. Fortunately for both, luck, or the capacity to make their own luck is something they appear to have in spades with bat or brain – a lesson for all captains perhaps.

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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.