December 12, 2013

Captains contrasting

Australia's and England's leaders are men cut from different cloth but both likeable, successful, and with mutually uncompromising gifts of patience and bloody-mindedness

Cook and Clarke: two exceptional men driven to the edge © Getty Images

de Ninety-nine and counting for Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook, two very different men charged with the same mission. Both begin their 100th Test match with the Ashes at stake. One will remember the occasion fondly, the other will want to forget it.

They are not buddies; indeed they barely know one another other than to shake hands and toss the coin. They are cut from different cloth: one urban, one rural. Yet in the age of trash-talking, the captains have fuelled the fire of the matches at their command by references to broken bones and war. Nor have they disapproved of the coals thrown upon it by their team-mates. This is not their nature, it is a consequence of their responsibility.

It is a long time since an English side arrived in Australia as favourites. Discounting 1978-79 - when Australia were ravaged by the exodus to Kerry Packer and, consequently, Mike Brearley's tourists took full advantage - you may have to go as far back as 1958-59, when Peter May brought a Harlem Globetrotter of a team and got thrashed 4-0. It is worth looking up. Alongside May was a gallery of English cricket - including Cowdrey, Graveney, Dexter, Bailey, Evans, Laker and Lock, Tyson, Trueman and Statham. Richie Benaud's new-age Australians played with an urgency and freshness that England simply could not repel. May finished as bewildered as Cook looks now.

It is an inescapable fact that the wheel of sport spins. Only a month ago, England appeared in control of their destiny, while Australia were deeply uncertain of theirs. During the last English summer there were days and matches when the gulf between the sides had opened so alarmingly in England's favour that one feared for the immediate future of the Ashes. England were 2-0 up after the two Tests and so great was the humiliation at Lord's that many Australian visitors refused to attend much of the third day, never mind the fourth, when the last rites were read.

Had you thrown the clock forward to tomorrow and dealt the tarot cards, no way could they have turned in favour of Clarke. His young face had become old, his smile forced, his body thin, and the hair unrecognisable from the days of a bright debut. Even his brilliance with the bat was made mortal by James Anderson's constant badgering around off stump. Darren Lehmann, the new coach, scrawled notes of disbelief at the awfulness of it all. Now, incredibly, it is Andy Flower who scrawls the notes of disbelief and Cook whose smile is tight-lipped.

Good judges think England might lose this series 5-0. If so, Cook will go one worse than May. It is unthinkable, or at least it was a month ago. The reversal is best exaggerated by Sir Ian Botham's prediction that England would win 5-0. That is some swing. The fear of it tells on Cook's face. In contrast, Clarke appears at ease among his peers, and though generally stern with the media, is savvy enough to know when to lighten up. The pressure on these two cricketers is alarming and the back-to-back series have taken it to the edge.

Australia - that is, the whole country - is alive to the kill. The tension is everywhere: in streets and shops, bars and restaurants; on beaches, at golf clubs, leagues clubs and surf clubs; in taxis, at airports, at check-in, at check-out. And England are feeling it. Familiarity is close to having bred contempt - a sidebar to a ten-match super series that had not been considered.

The captains live these emotions. One reason for the Australian team's obviously aggressive approach to the matches at the Gabba and Adelaide Oval is their suffering over three series at the hands of increasingly smug Englishmen. A nation sick to the pit of its stomach with the English shall have its vengeance. As a rule the English get over losing the Ashes - they became used to it during the drought of 1989-2005 - most Australians do not. Enough is enough in a land still identified by sport. Clarke has to win and the need is driving him like he has never been driven before.

The Australian captain is out of Sydney's Western Suburbs, a blue-collar place with rugby league at its recreational core. His grandfather taught him to bat and remains convinced his grandson is the modern incarnation of Bradman. Clarke made runs and found girlfriends in equal measure. He went down the tattoo road, bought an Aston Martin, some Prada suits, and moved to Bondi. The heartland of Australia could not forgive him the excess. All the while, though, Clarke trained and practised as if possessed. Late nights were rare, early mornings regular. He married a beauty and began to bat like Bradman. Newspapers printed apologies for their previous scolding. When he told a Pommie tailender that they were out to break his arm, the masses roared approval. If the Ashes are returned, all will be forgiven.

These are two exceptional men. They lead their teams as differently as they bat. One is an adventurer, the other a pragmatist. But the idea that Clarke spends his time in nightclubs is ridiculous. His marriage is cosy and dependable. His lifestyle more humdrum than betrayed by the fast car (long gone, incidentally). His close friendship with Shane Warne lives on but is maintained around a cricketing brief.

The cliché says that Ashes cricket defines you. Both Clarke and COok know that the decisions they make over the days that follow will leave their mark. Then, not so far into the future, they will look back and realise that Ashes cricket did not define them at all

The England captain grew up with music. He sang like an angel and played grade-eight clarinet and saxophone. His scholarship to Bedford School was given for these talents but he made a hundred against the school 1st XI as a 14-year-old ringer for the MCC, who arrived one short. Since that day, he has made hundreds on debut as a matter of course. There is a ruthlessness to him that is not immediately apparent. Much of the shock he has suffered these past few days will have come from the realisation that not everyone else in his number is of the same stock. Doubtless he will have sat down and thought this through with Graham Gooch, his friend and mentor. Gooch led a difficult tour to Australia and knows that the collective will is severely tested by distraction and defeat.

Cook devotes his spare time to life on his wife's family farm and spends Friday nights at the pub with the locals. He cares little for impression or bling, just for results. He sets his jaw square, barely notices the swooning female menace around him, and goes about his business. The result is 25 Test match hundreds and a golden first year in the role of captain. Until Brisbane. And then Adelaide.

When the coin hangs in the air tomorrow morning, both men know that fate will ask its questions and take its hand. The cliché says that Ashes cricket defines you. When that coin lands both will know that the decisions they make over the days that follow will leave their mark. Then, not so far into the future, they will look back and realise that Ashes cricket did not define them at all. The game of cricket might have done, for blood and sweat will have been left on fields far and wide, but the great world spins and Ashes battles are but a part of that.

Fifty-one hundreds between them in 198 Test matches. That is some yield. Cook's runs are made with an honesty and dependability; Clarke's with greater freedom and reference to the aesthetics. They share mutually uncompromising gifts of patience and bloody-mindedness, and have played innings that saved the nation while others around them tripped and fell. Last summer in England, Clarke suffered the painful journey of expectation to failure. Now the same journey stares Cook in the face. His greatest achievement will be to avoid it. Only cricket can shift the emphasis so quickly and do so at the feet of so many people. When the coin goes up tomorrow, spare a thought for two of the game's most likeable and most successful men. Men whose own achievement will be the furthest thing from their minds.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • RJHB on December 14, 2013, 2:25 GMT

    Ah the Indian distortion, you can depend on it like the sun coming up. S. Jagernath, I must bring you to task on a number of points. I agree, opening is tougher than batting in middle order, but the difference at test level is not what it is in lower levels. By your logic, maybe Bradman, Tendulkar and Lara dont deserve to be rated with Ponsford, Gavaskar and Grennidge! Crazy! As for taking the game away from opposition, that's exactly what Clarke does, you guys in India should know this all too well! He scores quickly, he scores big. As for the Newlands "47" game, what did SA get bowled out for again?? 96 all out after in fact losing 9-47 in 11 overs! Then the 47 by Australia. This all happened on Day 2 after half of day 1 had been washed out, so do you reckon the flat non green pitch might just have been freshened up a tad?! FYI Clarke made a brilliant 151 in the first innings. BTW what happened in the Australian summer that followed? Aussie glory, Indian humiliation! Loved it!

  • dummy4fb on December 13, 2013, 16:48 GMT

    I rate Cook higher than Clarke based on the overseas average.. Cook's Overseas average is 53 Clark's Overseas average is 42

  • dummy4fb on December 13, 2013, 4:29 GMT

    @dunger.bob - Yes, its irrelevant but i am a numbers guy and i could not help but wonder at how close the numbers were.

    I agree Cook has to buckle up and come out of the slump, Its far easier for cook to come out of a slump like this than any other batsmen because of his mental strength.

  • thekaz on December 12, 2013, 23:53 GMT

    Both great players and will go down in the history books. Let it be known though that at the end or their respective careers, Clarke will be remembered as a true Australian great along with many others. Cook will be remembered as England's greatest ever batsmen.

  • dunger.bob on December 12, 2013, 23:34 GMT

    @Vinay Parisa :"198 test matches 51 hundreds and around 15820 runs.. Thats what Sachin did in 198 tests.. Incredible." Thanks for that highly irrelevant info.

    What the hell, running with that, I would say that Cook is the only current batsman with any chance whatsoever of doing better than that. .. At 28, he may have another 7-8 years left in him at the outside. Could he possibly put together another 25 Tons in the time he has left? .. Possibly, but he won't be able to afford too many form slumps if he's to be any chance.

  • S.Jagernath on December 12, 2013, 21:43 GMT

    How is 'practically' opening tougher than actually opening?There is no doubt Clarke is a lovely player to watch,I just don't feel his performances can be compared with Cook's.Cook takes games away from the opposition.Look at what he did in the 2010/11 Ashes.I always believe that a middle order batsman's job is a far easier one than an openers (so does many past cricketers & cricketers),especially so when for the first 4/5 years you get to bat behind Langer,Hayden,Ponting,Martyn,Hussey & a lot of other quality batsmen.By the way,the test at Newlands when Australia got bowled out for 47 was never green.I watched every second of that test & the pitch was not green at all.@Will Macintosh.India actually produce very few flat surfaces,they are generally very rough & crumbling which leads to variable pace & bounce with a lot of spin & a bit of seam movement.More like a gravel road!

  • chicko1983 on December 12, 2013, 21:35 GMT

    @S.Jagernath: very selective quoting by yourself there. The full quote is "He married a beauty and began to bat like Bradman". Since Michael Clarke's marriage, he has played 16 tests, 8 at home and 8 away (5 in England, 3 in India). He has averaged a far from miserable 48 away, in England and India, and a massive 98 at home. The 98 at home is very bradman-esque. Over these 16 tests since he was married, he has averaged just over 70 after playing in England, India and Australia. So unless you think England, India and Australia are all the same "flat tracks" then Mr. Nicholas is a bit more correct than you are. Compare Clarke to Pujara, who has played all but two of his 16 tests at home and only averaged 65, then you might realise how great and bradman-esque Clarke has been since May 2012.

  • Fan_of_test_cricket on December 12, 2013, 20:52 GMT

    Take a bow, Mark, for this beautiful article.

  • dummy4fb on December 12, 2013, 18:11 GMT

    198 test matches 51 hundreds and around 15820 runs.. Thats what Sachin did in 198 tests.. Incredible.

    Good luck to Clarke and Cook and this is going to be one helluva cricket match

  • prv_hc on December 12, 2013, 17:08 GMT

    The picture tells you everything.Cook is looking at the urn,Clark is posing for the camera.