In 2011 with Ricky Ponting injured, Michael Clarke assumed the captaincy for the fifth and final test of the Ashes series. Whilst Clarke was at the crease of his hallowed home ground, the SCG, English captain Andrew Strauss briefly left the field and for a moment his deputy Alastair Cook was to discharge the duties of an acting captain. This was the first time Cook and Clarke would face off as captains of their respective national cricket sides, but it certainly won’t be the last.
You might not realize it now, but barring some extraordinary intervening act, the places are set for one of the greatest cricketing rivalries of all time. Both Clarke and Cook have assumed the national captaincies at young ages, Cook is but 27, Clarke is 31. They are both secure in their places as captain, with Ricky Ponting retired and Michael Hussey in the twilight of his career Clarke will soon exude an experience and authority over his players the likes of which would not have been seen since Alan Border’s day. Even Steve Waugh though unrivalled had stalwarts like Shane Warne, Glenn Mcgrath and brother Mark in his test side. Clarke by contrast has played more than twice as many matches as any of his colleagues bar Hussey.
Clarke is also a tough, shrewd operator. Like his former New South Wales captain, Steve Waugh, Clarke is from the working class suburbs of Western Sydney. He is robust, unpretentious, stoic and driven. Having served a long apprenticeship under Ricky Ponting he has established himself as a sound tactician and a fine role model for the younger players. He has a cooler temperament than his predecessor whose emotions got the better of him on more than one occasion. Clarke’s only career controversies have occurred outside of the game, involving his romantic entanglement with Lara Bingle. While it is hardly becoming of a test cricket captain to allow these shenanigans to distract him from his duties, they now appear to be well and truly in the past, something we can chalk up to immaturity.
Like Waugh Clarke is a complete cricketer, his batting is the best in the side, his bowling is competent and his fielding his exemplary. Having assumed the captaincy at a fairly young age there is no reason why we shouldn’t expect him to remain in the position for years to come.
English captain Alastair Cook is a very different person to Michael Clarke, yet he is no less suited to the role of captain. Tall, handsome and well spoken, he carries with him all the airs and graces of an old fashioned county captain. At school he was a bright pupil and a keen student of the clarinet, he won himself a scholarship to the prestigious Bedford School as a boarder where he earned himself three A levels and nine GCSE’s. Cook graduated straight from High School into the Essex County First XI. He made his test debut as a 21 year old, batting at number three in the lion’s den that was an Indian Summer and scoring a century on debut. The prodigious talent has remained in the test side ever since.
Cook emerged in the side around the time of Michael Vaughn’s retirement where successive candidates seemed ill equipped to the task of captain. Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen and Marcus Trescothik all had brief and unsuccessful stints as leader. Andrew Strauss proved capable enough but his elevation was late in his career and retirement soon ensued. Enter young Master Cook, the mainstay of the side throughout this turbulent period. After six years as a valued lieutenant to Trescothick, Flintoff and Pietersen, and a valued deputy to Strauss, Cook’s ascent to the top job seemed inevitable.
Cook does not possess the same stature within his side as Clarke. His position is more akin to Alexander of Macedon, a talented young captain commanding an army with several seasoned generals, rather than Philip II, who was unrivalled for experience and gravitas. Crucially though neither his vice captain, Stuart Broad, nor any of his senior colleagues are perceived to be genuine alternatives at this time and Cook’s performance is garnering wide approval.
Cook’s performance as a captain reflects his background. He is clever, talented and dignified. He conducts himself just as an old fashioned text book might suggest a captain ought to. There is no question over his mental toughness either, he cut his teeth as a 21 year old first in India, then against the record breaking Australian Ashes side, acquitting himself well on both occasions. After surviving, albeit in unglamorous form a brutal Ashes tour against Glenn Mcgrath, Stuart Clark and Shane Warne, Cook has matured commendably.
As a cricketer, Cook’s playing style befits his personality. He is an elegant and unflappable batsman, gifted with patience and resilience. Like many other greats he has a penchant to play the proverbial “captain’s knock,” asserting his sides strength from the outset with a commanding innings opening the batting. He is also an athletic fielder, capable of fielding most positions with distinction. In short he is a natural leader, who having come to the leadership at a relatively young age can now be expected to remain there for nearly a decade, maybe more.
And so the pieces are all place for a great cricketing rivalry to ensue. Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke, both fine leaders of fine cricketing nations seem set to lead their respective sides into test cricket’s oldest contest for the next decade. There could scarcely be two more different men and yet both are uniquely perfect choices for the job in which they are serving. Not since Doctor William Gibert Grace captained England for five consecutive Ashes series against William Murdoch in 1880s/1890’s have two captains faced off for more than twice, I would wager money that now that is about to change.