Warne critical of Clarke's off-field role
Australia's captain Michael Clarke must improve as a leader off the field and redouble his efforts to create a happier team environment during the forthcoming Ashes series, Shane Warne has said. In a significant departure from usually glowing support of his "best friend", Warne has conceded the national team lapsed into an insular mode that recalled the doomed England teams of the 1990s under Clarke's leadership, before improving later in the previous Ashes encounter.
Warne made his critique of Clarke in a column for the Telegraph that also suggested England's captain Alastair Cook should be replaced by Kevin Pietersen or Graeme Swann if the tourists are to seriously challenge for the position of undisputed world No. 1. The floating of such a concept was not surprising considering Warne's earlier attack on Cook in an interview with English media, but his words about Clarke were more telling.
Clarke and Warne have had a close relationship ever since the younger man's early days in the Australian Test team. Always Clarke's strongest defender, Warne has very seldom offered any criticism of a cricketer he has mentored, most recently attacking Ricky Ponting for his quite balanced and detailed observations of Clarke in his autobiography. So his admission that Clarke must be more focused on the welfare of his team is notable.
"Clarke has Cook covered on tactics but where he must improve is in creating a happier team environment," Warne wrote. "The Australian team were noticeably happier at the end of the English summer and, as Clarke and Lehmann's partnership started to take hold, Australia played better. If we look back over the years to when England lost eight Ashes series in a row there were a lot of people in their side playing for themselves and their own positions. It was a selfish environment. This is what Clarke has to avoid at all costs.
"If you look at the last three Tests in the Ashes, and the recent one-day series in India, there were a lot more Australian players smiling and in form. It looks a happier team than during the ICC Champions Trophy in June and the first couple of Test matches in England but the work has to continue. To me Australia have to improve in more areas than England if they are to regain the Ashes. But if England want to be the best Test side in the world, then Cook has to be more aggressive and proactive."
While he pushed the point about Cook's lack of tactical flair and aggression, Warne said that he had been more critical of Clarke in private conversations between the pair than anything he had previously said publicly. He also offered the view that Australia's results over the years had reflected the standard of the captains who commanded the teams.
"This week I have been critical of Cook as a captain, maybe a bit harshly, as he has a great record," Warne wrote. "For your information, I am not paid by Cricket Australia and have no official role with them. Sure, Clarke is one of my best friends but ask him and he will tell you I am one of his harshest critics. I honestly believe that Cook has to improve tactically if England are to become the No. 1 team in the world again and I do not think too many people would disagree with me.
"I am also speaking from the experience of playing under some great captains - and some who were not so great. If you look at the leaders Australia had when we did well and when we struggled, it generally reflected the standard of the captains. If I had to choose a captain out of the England side it would be Kevin Pietersen or Graeme Swann. That may sound like an unbelievable thing to say after all the controversy of last year but I think KP has the best cricket brain in the team.
"Graeme Swann is good too, as we have seen from his Twenty20 captaincy of England. They are both imaginative, good readers of the game and take the aggressive option first, whereas Cook retreats too quickly. He goes very defensive when he should be stamping his authority on the match."
Warne has often said that Allan Border and Mark Taylor were the best two captains he played under, while being far more critical of Ponting and Steve Waugh. Border's record was poor for many years as the national team regenerated under his guidance, before Taylor took over and lifted the team to No. 1 in the world. Waugh and Ponting carried on the era of success, and both finished with better overall records than either Border or Taylor.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here