Overkill can't quell Ashes fever
Series hinges on rival captains' batting form - and the loser could pay with his job
Here we go again. From the frequency with which Ashes series come around you might think that this entertainment has been commissioned by the same people who bring us Strictly, MasterChef or Downton. Find a winning formula and squeeze it dry.
We are about to embark upon the third Test series between these two countries in the past two years, in part a consequence of rejigging the international schedule so that England's winters in Australia no longer coincide with the World Cup, a measure, we can safely say, that did absolutely nothing for the ECB's pursuit of glory in 50-over cricket.
Yet despite the recent saturation, the fascination with those cricketers with the baggy green cap endures. The crowds have flocked in to the Aussies' warm-up games at Canterbury and Chelmsford. Those games have not been particularly special. There have been runs aplenty as the Australians enjoy the most cordial of welcomes from counties so grateful for their presence and their ability to generate income way beyond any other cricketing nation.
Like Tom Jones, Dolly Parton or Lionel Richie, the old bunch of troupers from Down Under (10 of the 17 tourists are aged over 30) can still pack them in. We all remain remarkably curious and excited by the prospect of the Ashes.
The mood is very different from two years ago. Australia were the underdogs and how they deserved that role. There was disarray in the wake of the 'homework' fiasco in India when none of the senior citizens of Cricket Australia could persuade coach Mickey Arthur coach or captain Michael Clarke to change their obstinate, blinkered determination to drop four of the team.
Australian cricket was a laughing stock. Darren Lehmann replaced Arthur at the helm, but one of their best batsmen, David Warner, was sidelined for the first Ashes Test after an incident in a pub in Birmingham, involving England's Joe Root.
This was followed by a close-run loss at Nottingham, then a crushing defeat in the Lord's Test, Australia's sixth consecutive loss, the same sequence that prompted Kim Hughes to resign in tears in 1984. One journalist said to Clarke: "I presume that won't happen this time?" Clarke replied: "Presume nothing."
Meanwhile, Alastair Cook was being pilloried by Shane Warne for his defensive captaincy, but not by many others. Kevin Pietersen was batting at four and hit his last Ashes century (at least, I presume there won't be another one) and England won the series 3-0. It might have been 4-0.
Clarke's funky declaration at The Oval, which had senior Australians snorting with fury, took his team to the brink of defeat, whereupon the umpires decided to take the players off for bad light. Yet today Clarke is heralded as one of the great captains and - with justification after the Phillip Hughes tragedy - a wonderful ambassador for the game.
Now it is not only Warne who is eager to point out the shortcomings of Cook the captain, especially since the decision to ostracise Pietersen. The Warne factor will be an interesting sideshow throughout the series. Warne is Clarke's "biggest mate" and how gratifying it must be for Australia's captain to have the world's greatest wrist-spinner, who has always been blessed with a fertile cricket brain, in his corner. However, there is a downside here if the captain is more inclined to follow the advice of his old mate than his coach. This has been a source of friction within the Australia camp, even during the successes of the Lehmann era.
Warne's relationship with Cook has never been quite so warm. On the eve of the Headingley Test in June 2014 it became apparent that Warne's frequent criticisms had got to the England captain. Speaking with more candour than good sense, Cook admitted as much, saying that the criticism was "personal" and that "something should be done about it". This was a bullseye for Warne, who sometimes still appears to be preoccupied by winning the Ashes rather than just talking or writing about them. He had rattled the England captain.
The general perception is that Clarke's captaincy is vastly superior to Cook's: the statistics do not entirely back that up. Clarke has won 22 and lost 13 of his 42 Tests as captain, a good record; Cook has won 14 and lost 10 of his 33 Tests in charge, which is not too bad either. There is not a huge disparity in the figures. What they may tell us is that we can overestimate the impact of the captain, whether he be funky or pragmatic, provided he has his team four-square behind him.
It is more important how the two captains bat. Both are titanic run-scorers of the modern game. Cook has 9,000 runs at 46 from his 114 Test matches, Clarke 8,511 at 50 from 110 games. It will not come as major surprise that when England win Test matches Cook averages 60, when they lose he slumps to 29. Clarke averages 56 when Australia win and 31 when they lose.
Those runs are usually more influential than any funky field/bowling changes. A prime objective for both players in the hullaballoo that precedes an Ashes series is to get their own games in order. In recent times Clarke has managed this better than Cook, who has averaged 26 in his last 10 Tests against Australia and who has barely seen a ball that can be cut or clipped on the leg-side. In this series look to the captains rather than the coaches.
There are plenty of other compelling duels. Eighteen months ago Mitchell Johnson reintroduced the fear factor to Test cricket. There was the mesmerising sight of certain batsmen quaking in their boots. Can he repeat that on slower English pitches (it was instructive that Stuart Broad hoped for "slow seamers" this summer, an odd request for an opening bowler)? Johnson is unlikely to be given the new ball, which is now in the possession of Mitchell Starc, an ominous development for England.
Of the two wonderkids of international cricket, who will come out on top? Steve Smith at No 3 or Root at five? The chances are that when the next Ashes series comes around this pair will be tossing up together. How will Ben Stokes react to a little bit of goading from behind the stumps? Will England be able to control Warner, potentially the most destructive batsman in the series? Will the Aussies? Will anyone bother to defend against the spinners?
There are intriguing questions everywhere, which start and end with the captains. And now traditionally comes a prediction: no, not the outcome but the observation that whichever captain ends up on the losing side will relinquish their job at the end of the series, not necessarily of their own volition.
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