When Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook first faced off as captains back in 2011 they were the archetypal boy generals. Taking over the top job while still in their twenties, the energetic and limber new captains cut a sharp contrast with their crusty and deteriorating predecessors. Both men had been earmarked for the top job about thirty seconds after making their test debut and when they swiftly rose to the top position at precociously young ages it seemed we were destined to witness a rivalry so epic as to cast a shadow over all others.
Cook and Clarke have now gone head to head as test captains some fourteen times, plus a dozen or so one day encounters. Ricky Ponting did battle with Graham Smith on nine occasions, so too Mark Taylor with Michael Atherton but neither crossed that magic ten match threshold. Cook and Clarke did not merely cross it, they have well and truly demolished it. The idea now of an Ashes test under different leadership seems a little peculiar and yet, sadly before time, we are poised to experience exactly that.
The two men that shook hands at the beginning of July were markedly different from the boy wonders that crossed swords four years earlier. Out of form and under fire with talented and dynamic young deputies breathing down their necks, the pair were grimly aware of the fact that they were not merely playing for the Ashes but their own careers.
Alastair Cook was the first captain in decades to take over an English side of comparable strength to the Australians, arguably greater. Yet his record as both a batsman and a captain has disappointed, falling short of the high standards set by Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan. For the last four years as a batsman Cook has been lacklustre and as a side England has been volatile. An Ashes loss on their home turf would likely have spelt the end of Cook’s captaincy and potentially his place in the test side.
Clarke as we well know was an ageing, underperforming batsman leading a side in continual decline. Under his leadership Australia was meant to arrest a persistent slide in overseas campaigns that began with the retirement of the Warne, Mcgrath, Gilchrist Troika in 2007/08. Whether by strategic genius, disciplined leadership or sheer force of his own run scoring, Clarke was supposed to reverse the decline. For a fleeting moment he appeared to be doing just that, off the back of his own Bradmanesque scoring he appeared to be keeping the decline at bay, but when injuries hampered his batting prowess Australia slid right back into this severe decline from the their 97-07 high water mark. The string of disappointments had stretched too far, the Australian selectors could not abide another and so Clarke had to go.
This was the spectre under which both captains greeted each other at the beginning of the series. Unlike many other notable cricketing rivals there was no malice or acrimony in the relationship between Clarke and Cook. They have throughout their careers maintained a dignified and professional respect for the other. There were no unedifying shouting matches on the field, no potshots in the media and no accusations of bad sportsmanship. They played hard, they played to win and they did it within the spirit of cricket. It was perhaps therefore with a touch of melancholy that they shook hands with the knowledge that at the end of the series only one of them could have a future ahead of them.
The final showdown was a yo-yoing affair but this was the how it had always been between Clarke and Cook. In 2013 England comfortably claimed a home victory over the Australians before being humiliated six months later in a five nil whitewash in Australia. This time round, fighting for his very survival, Cook drew first blood with a convincing win at Cardiff against a respectable Australian performance. Clarke’s Australians fought back at Lords as they were wont to do with an imperious 400 run victory and for a moment it looked as though Cook might be the one forced to deliver a resignation speech. But wimpy batting efforts from the Australians saw England seize control at tests 3 and 4 and undisciplined bowling secured Clarke’s demise. Cook will go on to lead England perhaps for another five years, the boy captain is still only thirty years of age and despite poor form with the bat still seems athletic and hungry in the field. His Ashes triumph has bought him time. Time to regain his form, time to correct his technique. His great rival has completely run out.
When they go head to head for the last time at The Oval for their final pas de deux, Cook will be a man with a spring in his step. The weight of a thousand pressures will be lifted from his shoulders. Clarke will be, as they say, a dead man walking. He has chosen not to fight his own demise, he has pleaded guilty and stoically prepared himself for execution.
Four years ago two promising young deputies stood in for their injured captains. They stood on equal footing, relaxed, confident and optimistic. Four years later one is a national hero, his position in the side is unquestioned, he looks as fit and healthy as a twenty year old and appears destined to enjoy a flourishing career for years to come. The other is a humbled and broken. Frustrated by injuries and a lack of success he can but wonder what might have been had his (and perhaps Ryan Harris’) back held up.
So when the two shake hands on the 20th of August savour it. Take a moment to reflect upon the rich and exciting era of Ashes cricket under Cook and Clarke: Ashton Agar’s 98 at no11 on debut, Mitchel Johnson’s 37 wicket series in Australia, Kevin Pietersen’s dramatic sacking, Steven Smith’s double century at Lords and of course Stuart Broad’s 8/ 15 at Trent Bridge. Throughout these turbulent years Cook and Clarke remained at the helm, stoic, dignified and resilient and now it is all at an end. The game will of course go on as it always has but we have never seen and may never again see two captains go through as much together as these two and even the hardest of men must be touched with sadness at this truth.