Cautious Cook faces off against charismatic Clarke
THE 67th Ashes series begins at Trent Bridge today, and millions of people's emotions will be buffeted over the next six weeks, but the outcome will affect two men more than any other – Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke.
This is both players' maiden Ashes series as captain – though Clarke captained the last Test of the previous one in Australia – and though neither will admit it, the result of this series, and the one that follows, will define them for the rest of their days.
In an age where sport teams tend to ape each other in both play and preparation, onlookers are in for a treat, as these two cut contrasting figures as leaders. Cook, who succeeded Andrew Strauss as England's Test captain last autumn, has inherited many of his predecessor's ways, caution being the main one, while Clarke is a charismatic captain inspired by taking risks.
In one-day cricket, Cook has been willing to experiment with field settings and be aggressive, but in Tests he is quick to defend the team's position and resort to law of averages to break opponents. He usually has the runs and a consistently excellent bowling attack to be able to do that, a luxury rarely afforded Clarke, who thrives on improvisation and taking gambles, the latter second nature to most Australian males.
Yesterday, Cook said that he had been sifting advice from other England captains about the unique pleasures and pressures of an Ashes contest, but was adamant that, in the final reckoning, he would be true to himself.
"There has been a bit of advice and I am good friends with Straussy so it would be silly of me not to tap into that," he said. "But you have to go with your instinct because when you're out there, you're the one making those decisions."
Yesterday, he confirmed that he had picked his final XI, though he will not name it until the toss this morning. But has he gone for the extra pace, on what looks a hard, bare and dry pitch, of Steven Finn or the reverse-swing of Tim Bresnan, who along with James Anderson, can count Trent Bridge as a personal fiefdom?
But whichever bowling combination he settles on, and Finn looks favourite given Cook's belief in him, his bowlers will want him to win the toss and bat.
Clarke, meanwhile, is adamant, that his Ashes record will not shape people's judgment of him as a cricketer, which goes against history, but then he is part of modern Australia, which now claims to rise above the enmity of centuries-old sporting rivalries like the Ashes.
"I would hate for people to all of a sudden think I'm a good captain because we win this series," Clarke said. "To me, five matches can't be an indication as to whether you're good or not."
Where Cook scores over his rival is in having repatriated Kevin Pietersen, England's 'Mr Awkward', back into the team. Although the Australian camp have been sounding all the right conciliatory notes since Darren Lehmann took over as coach 17 days ago, we await evidence that Shane Watson, Australia's best batsman after Clarke, is fully behind the new regime.
In many ways, it is a classic contest between English efficiency and Australian audacity, with two good pace bowling attacks driving the action.
England have the best spinner in Graeme Swann and the more experienced batting line-up, but Australia have the more proactive captain, and that could count for a lot. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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