Do nasty guys finish first?
I wonder which Michael Clarke we'll see at The Oval. If he's been reading any of the press from both sides of the world, he might be confused as to which persona to adopt as Australia try hard to avoid a 4-0 scoreline that won't really do justice to their fighting spirit and to his excellent leadership under duress.
Wayne Smith, writing in the Australian, was eloquent and informed in his analysis of Clarke's captaincy. Most good judges of cricket have applauded his attacking instincts in the field, clever bowling changes and innovative field placements. At the end of the day, though, two relatively evenly matched teams have contrived to produce a scoreline that reads 3-0, despite Clarke's captaincy, not because of it. The difference has been that when Australia have played poorly, they have done so badly enough to virtually surrender a game in a session. England's poor patches have been limited by some effective damage control to the extent where they haven't allowed the slide to become terminal. They have shown a bit more resolve in not allowing a mini-collapse or wayward bowling to spiral to the point where the game is irretrievable from that point on.
The Times' Alan Lee took a different tack in his post-match analysis after the fourth Test. His view was that Clarke (and by association, Australia) needed to cultivate more mongrel and stop being such a "nice guy". The basic tenet of his piece was that Clarke was smiling too much and was not putting on enough of the Mr Nasty act. Clarke's apparent cheerfulness, perceived by many as a sign of dignity and good grace, was now being written up as possibly a reason why those Tests were compromised. Lee cited Ian Chappell's truculence and Allan Border's grumpiness as prime examples of Australian captains who were successful because they were curmudgeonly.
In my opinion this sort of simplistic analysis misses a few obvious truths that have everything to do with cricketing ability and very little to do with boorishness. The winning and losing of Test matches (any sporting contest for that matter) is primarily down to the superior ability of one team/individual in comparison to their opponents. Occasionally luck, weather, key injuries and umpiring decisions can change that destiny, but in the main it's usually down to who has the better cattle on the day. In this Ashes series, England started as deserved favourites and despite Australia's admirable tenacity (at times), the results have echoed that slight edge in the quality of the cricketers. No amount of cussing and frowning would necessarily have changed that.
Even the Chappell brothers, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee, renowned for being gristly opponents, couldn't do much when their teams were regularly overwhelmed by the West Indies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including in World Series Cricket. That period was described by many as the emergence of the Ugly Australian (in a cricketing sense) as the history books portrayed them (although I was too young myself to tell if that tag was warranted or not), but that counted for very little when those fearsome West Indian fast bowlers were at their throats or when Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge et al were collaring formidable bowling attacks spearheaded by the Lillee Thomson and Pascoe. I can't see how being any nastier could have won them any more games. More runs and wickets might have helped, and that's what it boils down to.
Likewise Border. His prolific run-scoring feats, much of them accomplished with his back to the wall, was a function of his immense mental strength and no little amount of pure skill. Some of those brave innings against the likes of Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall were because he was supremely talented as a batsman, not because of the so-called Captain Grumpy tablets. Being grumpy didn't do much to change Australia's success in the early years of his captaincy. It was only in 1989, when Mark Taylor, Geoff Marsh, Steve Waugh and Terry Alderman all clicked together that he won back the Ashes. He was probably just as cantankerous in 1986-87 and fat lot of good that did him when Fat Gatt's tourists took Australia to the cleaners on the back of Chris Broad's purple patch.
I've been watching bits of the Caribbean Premier League recently and Kieron Pollard's ridiculous on-field antics are a prime case in point. In two recent matches, he has deliberately instigated aggro with two of his West Indian team-mates (Lendl Simmons and Marlon Samuels) to the point where it is clear that his infractions with other players over the years cannot be written off as temporary moments of poor manners. Yet, in both those CPL games, he was comprehensively clean-bowled for nought. So much for the theory that aggressive behaviour drives superior performance. All the trash-talking and sledging that he initiated could not change the fact that on those two occasions, despite being Captain Obnoxious, his team lost both games, and his sum contribution was zero from three balls. His team did not benefit from that style of captaincy but they might have appreciated some runs and wickets instead.
If you look back to the deliveries that Clarke received in the first innings at Trent Bridge and the second innings in Durham, it wouldn't have mattered if he was the grumpiest bloke on the planet or not - those balls were almost unplayable. Well, actually, they were unplayable. Stuart Broad's mojo moments in Durham were out of Clarke's control. An impersonation of Chappelli or AB at their curmudgeonly best could not have altered that. Great bowling, some indifferent shots, and one team playing better than the other - that's what decides Test matches, not some rubbish theories about standing at first slip and smiling too much. It's an insult to these guys, hardened professional cricketers who are giving 100% at all times, to suggest that it's as easy as turning on the "nasty tap" and winning becomes a whole lot easier.
Cricketers are made different. Andre Nel looked like he might have been born snarling at the midwife, and that's the way he played his cricket too. His behaviour rarely changed, even when Ricky Ponting was giving him a touch-up at the SCG in 2006. He went for 6.5 runs per over in the second innings but never changed his abrasive manner. If it was as easy as just getting angrier or nastier to get wickets, why wasn't he a world-beater?
I'm mates with Gladstone Small and you couldn't meet a nicer bloke if you walked to the ends of the earth. Both Small and Nel averaged about 33 with the ball in Test cricket (Small's batting average was six runs higher) and you couldn't think of two blokes with similar records who could be any more different in terms of bile and invective hurled at batsmen. So what does that prove about the connection between success and savage intent?
The funny thing about even those players who swear (literally) by their tactic of being deliberately obnoxious as a strategy is that if you ask them if they have ever been put off by someone acting aggressively towards them, they laugh it off disdainfully. It's as if they truly believe that only their sledging, only their body language and only their dark moods, have the power to put others off their game. They don't admit to being affected by such things themselves. Talk about living in fool's paradise. Try sledging Jacques Kallis and see if that works - the guy bats as if he is hypnotised.
You can't manufacture nastiness where it doesn't exist. Clarke's just not one of those personality types. Simply getting him to stop smiling ruefully and keeping life in perspective ain't gonna change a thing. When this team gets a bit more experience and has a bit of luck, he might win a game or two. I sincerely doubt if, as Mr Lee puts it, "he stopped smiling and developed some nastiness" whether that would make the slightest difference. Until he has a winning team at his disposal, his options are limited, so he may as well show some grace under fire without fear of being labelled soft by any of his more hard-bitten predecessors. As Lee concedes, "He has led his vanquished men with dignity and inventiveness." That's not something to be ashamed of.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane