August 11, 2013

Clarke doesn't fear defeat

Australia's captain sets aggressive fields and isn't afraid to take a gamble, unlike Alastair Cook, who is typically conservative

There are a lot of myths surrounding the art of captaining a cricket side. Often the position is given way too much kudos, and at the other end of the scale its value is drastically discounted.

In Australia, the captain is said to be more important than the prime minister. That's codswallop. Many an Australian captain has led his team into battle but none has ever had to make the agonising decision to go to war.

Former Australian legspinner Bill "Tiger" O'Reilly used to regularly write: "My collie dog could captain a cricket team." Whilst I'm an avowed dog lover, I'm also well aware that they have masters, and generally it is cats who lead their servants a merry dance.

However, it's indisputable that Australia's apparent turnaround in the current series is in large part due to Michael Clarke's captaincy. It was not just his substantial innings at Old Trafford but also his thoughtful field placements. By placing challenging fields, Clarke, helped by the accuracy of his bowlers, harried the England batsmen either into error or into finding themselves becalmed. This pattern has continued in the fourth Test.

The crowded on-side catching cordon Clarke has placed for both Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen reminded me of a similar ploy that evolved under Allan Border's captaincy in 1989. This cunning plan eventually eroded Graham Gooch's confidence. Ironically he's now charged with the task of assisting the current England batsmen to find a way out of this maze of fieldsmen.

There's no doubt Clarke is the most aggressive of the current crop of international captains. He has a good feel for the job and he's tactically astute. He's also brave and this allows him to seek victory from the first ball, while understanding that occasionally this will lead to defeat. He hates losing but he doesn't fear it, and there's a huge difference between those two emotions.

The captain who fears losing will not always seek a win unconditionally, while the man who hates the thought of coming second will do all in his power to conjure up a victory.

Clarke's counterpart, Alastair Cook, is more typical of the English breed and tends to err on the conservative side. He was very quick to push the field back at Old Trafford when Australia finally got on top, and this suggested he was happy with a draw to retain the urn. Strangely, for a player who has been a run-making machine since taking over the captaincy, Cook has been tentative in this Ashes series. At times he has searched for the ball like a near-sighted man fumbling for his glasses.

When it comes to placing fields, Cook is stock standard with very little imagination, while Clarke is much more likely to set an opposing batsman a stiff examination. On the score of gambling to claim a wicket, Clarke has the advantage with two wristspinners in Steve Smith and David Warner, who are more likely to produce a "magic ball". On the other hand, Cook was strangely reluctant to use Joe Root much at Old Trafford despite his reputation for being a bit of a golden arm.

Of the current captains, Clarke is the one least likely to resort to the modern fad of pushing fielders back to the boundary even though a batsman is new at the crease. This ploy defies logic because it gives a good player easy runs. It's even more difficult to comprehend when most captains are batsmen and surely must understand how much easier this makes building an innings.

Clarke's weakness as a captain appears to be his understanding of the importance of the batting order. Part of this is due to his preference for batting at No. 5, but it's also his misguided approach, which appears to be based on a typical pub raffle draw.

Australia have a good stock of fast bowlers and this affords any captain a headstart in the search for victory. Clarke, having led the way back from the brink at Old Trafford, will be hoping he has inspired a corresponding response from his fellow batsmen so Australia can confirm that that performance was indeed a resurgence rather than just another mirage.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist