One of my very few gripes about professional sport is the exaggerated and dishonest sense of drama that is attached in the weeks leading up to an event. Every match or series is ‘critical’ to a certain outcome or ‘vital’ to the development of some player or team that will catapult them into a stratosphere of rarefied air that will blah blah, and that is why it is imperative that you should watch. Some of the drivel printed in the major newspapers is so bad, you wouldn’t wrap your fish and chips with it. It’s not as if the theatrics of the contest itself, whatever the sport, need anymore amplifying.
The reason I have preluded with this ‘ramble on’ is because I want to talk about the Ashes. Or more specifically the role of the captain in the upcoming series, in what is the most important English tour in recent memory. Perhaps as important as the last time they toured, or perhaps the time before that. In any event, it is very important. Michael Clarke is a very good Australian captain and tactician, however I feel that his unwavering desire to win test matches from any position or weather forecast makes us a predictable side that is vulnerable to ambush.
Say what you will about his temperament or disposition, but no-one can deny that ‘Pup’ is an erudite student of the game. His dedication to the development of his own output is the best possible example he can set for younger players. The amount of ‘captains knocks’ he has made in a short period of time is unmatched. Former partner Lara Bingle recently described his approach to his cricket and life as “very robotic.” I don’t know about you, but that remark, which was probably intended as an insult, is the highest words of praise for an Australian cricket captain that Lara could have given. He lives and breathes it. However this compulsion may lead him down the path of outsmarting himself.
Before I get into the crux of it, it is worth remembering that no Australian captain has had to carry the batting order in the way that Michael has, since Allan Border. ‘Captain grumpy’ had a style that couldn’t be separated from his unquenchable thirst for success, and XXXX gold’s. He literally scared his team into capable performers, perhaps as much or even more so than he scared the opposition into wilting. There was nothing shrinking, or violet about AB.
Now I realise that Clarkey is not cut from the same cloth, and that it is the ‘Australian way’ to never give up and approach sport in the most positive fashion available. However when these tactics are being pre-emptively used against us, as they were in the most recent Ashes series in England, it makes me think we should change our tact.
As Ian Chappel says there are only two ways to win a Test match; either you bury the opposition under a mountain of runs or you limit their scoring to attainable totals.
Admittedly Clarke has had his hand forced on many occasions, due to the failure of the top and middle orders to post mountainous runs. Without having first innings runs, it has forced him to continually play catch-up cricket on the back of an excellent battery of fast bowlers. I get that; he is just working within the parameters of having Ed Cowan as one of his opening batsmen for the past twelve months or so.
Where I get a little dubious is that it is crushing for a side, especially the bowlers, to toil hard session after session before losing a match you should have drawn because your captain declared too early. Clarke is not often guilty of this, but this is exactly what would have happened in the last Ashes test had it not been rained out, with England needing 21 runs from the remaining four overs. There was not that much between the two sides in the most recent series, however history will mark the series as a 3-0 drubbing, that could very easily have been 4-0. The captain needs to be accountable for these results, as that series outcome is not reflective of the battle that took place over those five tests.
On one hand Clarke should be applauded for creating an incredible contest in what was a dead rubber, but on the other hand to lose that match from such a strong position would be a jagged little pill to swallow. We learn by success, and positive reinforcement, which in turn creates habit. Captains shouldn’t fear losing, but they should hate it.
When Peter Siddle bowls stump-to-stump all day on a wicket that better resembles a bitumen road, but still manages to pick-up a five-for, he needs to be rewarded for his effort. Not only by his skipper, but also by the top order – otherwise his efforts are in vain. When his captain risks this good work by declaring too early in the next innings, he is not appropriately valuing the effort and potential negative impact of not winning. What he is doing is essentially throwing the reward for effort of his bowlers onto the roulette wheel and playing for double or nothing. Win, and he is the noble and fearless tactician. Lose, especially a game that should be drawn, and he is the ultimate bridesmaid.
Personal glory aside, the real negative impact doesn’t come from the loss itself, but the cumulative effect is that his players feel they have worked so hard for nothing. Sure, all the players ride the highs and lows equally. But against very good opposition, like in anything, if you keep gambling you’re probably going to lose more often than the preferred outcome. As captain, Michael Clarke must consider and understand exactly what he is gambling if this tactic is going to be a constant for the remainder of his time in the hot-seat.
In comparison with his English contemporary, Alastair Cooke, who is a considered, stony-faced and methodical leader – the pair could not be more dissimilar in style. I’m just glad that they are playing cricket, and not cards because at-least with cricket we have a punchers chance no matter what our tactics are. If I were sitting around a table playing cards with Michael Clarke and Alastair Cooke, I know who I would preferred to be teamed up with.
Shane Warne has come out and said that Cooke is a negative captain, and that he will need to lead his side very differently in Australia as the game will move much faster and he will not be able to rely on rain and slow over rates to weasel out results. All of that is unequivocally true, yet I think Alastair should see Warne’s swipe as the highest form of flattery, as Warne by nature always tries to rile the most important piece of the opposition puzzle.
The gravest concern is that I don’t think Michael Clarke has any fall-back tactics other than to be hyper-aggressive. That is, there is no method to the madness. My main piece of evidence for this statement is the use of the DRS. The use of the DRS by Michael Clarke and Shane Watson for that matter, since the technology’s inception has been peerless in it’s incompetence. The longer the series went on, Clarke changed his tact to mirror Cooke’s approach. As I watched his approach change over the series, I found myself thinking ‘has he even got a philosophy for using this system?’ or is he just watching England and going, ‘ohhh that’s how you use it.’ Reactive rather than proactive captaincy. If I were cynical I would even suggest that Michael Clarke hasn’t even considered the merits of conservative cricket, even in theory. By the end of this series learning and reacting to Cooke’s tactics, he might even have developed two different game plans.
Of course every tenure at the top is scrutinised, especially given how unforgiving we are as a sporting public in periods of limited success. But the lack of leadership in Australian cricket is threadbare when you consider there is no logical next Australian skipper. It is one of the big reasons why George Bailey is such a logical inclusion in the test side. The Tasmanian improves the cricketing IQ of the side by the width of the Bass Straight. Tim Paine, was considered by many to be the successor to the throne until he broke his hands so badly that his future in any form of the game was thrown into jeopardy. He is slowly making his way back, but needs to get ahead of Mathew Wade in the keeping pecking order before he can make any valid captaincy push.
As unlikely as this might sound, I think the next Australian captain will be Steve Smith. If there is a more natural cricketer in Australia, I can’t think who he is. The fact that he made his debut as a wrist spinner, and is now the permanent third drop, while also being arguably the best fielder in the side, is a testament to his abilities. It’s bizarre to think that he is only 24. As a captain his style would be as unorthodox as his batting technique, which often looks as if he is using a broom rather than a bat. He has great footwork that allows him to pull off shots that don’t even have names. I just hope that in time he can tiptoe his way through the mires of Australian cricket with the same sense of grace. I am reluctant to nominate Steve as the heir, because waiting in the wings has often been a more poisoned role than the chalice itself. Not just at the expense of Tim Paine’s phalanges, but the title never did anything but weigh down Simon Katich’s career as he toiled manfully on the fringes.
One of the more shrewd Australian captains was the previously mentioned Ian Chappell. Chappelli had a rather simple philosophy to captaincy; he wasn’t consistently conservative or aggressive. His mantra was to do what the opposition captain wanted him to do the least. If it was hot, make them field longer. If they liked the ball coming onto the bat, bring on a seamer or a tweaker. Make the opposition as uncomfortable as possible, for as long as possible and grind them down through mental degradation. While our primary focus should always be on our own game, this guerrilla warfare approach is sadly missing from the current psyche of Australian cricketers, bar a handful.
Losses breed insecurity and doubt within the playing ranks about the methods and the leaders of the team and the organisation. There is no suggestion that this is the case with Clarke as he is the best and really, the only man for the job. The lay of the land is that if you are, as Michael is, the best player of your generation you need to learn how to become the captain. Whether it’s your disposition or not, as the freshly retired Sachin Tendulkar was fruitlessly made to learn. Clarke has been groomed by some of the greatest, and this series will be the one that defines his legacy as captain. England are ripe for the picking, Michael just needs to make sure that he has the right players in position, so that the fruit never touches the ground.