The Ashes series has a unique charm attached to it. The matches are more like battles being fought for pride, each adding to the glorious chapters of Ashes` history. The series also makes and breaks cricketers. Playing in an Ashes Test is a matter of pride for the English and the Australian cricketers, and if they perform well, like miraculously well, they emerge as heroes.
Captaining an Ashes Test side, is also no mean feat. All eyes are glued to the captain`s decisions, on and off-the-field behaviour, strategies, and of course the cricket he plays.
History has enough evidences to prove that an Ashes captain ought to have nerves of steel. In 2001, Aussie captain Steve Waugh had badly torn his calf muscle, but he went on to score an unbeaten 157 runs to lead by example. Grit and determination further were evident in his stellar knock of 2003 Ashes where he scored a century and rescued his side. Strategically, it was Bill Woodfull`s resilience in famous Bodyline tour of 1929 that makes him a hero. He did not bend to the tactics followed by the English team nor did repeat them. This earned him praises from cricketers and fans alike. England captain Ian Botham had to resign from captaincy following his poor form and the team`s loss in 1981 Ashes. Ironically, after he resigned, his magnificent performance earned him the Man of the Series award in the same tour. Clearly, once the captaincy pressure was off, he performed. Aussie captain Allan Border was responsible for leading his team in times of crisis in late 1980s. Michael Vaughan`s performance in 2005 Ashes where he led England to victory earned him accolades from all corners.
This year, the Ashes hysteria is at an all-time high. With such a high-profile series being played back-to-back within a span of three months, each player is under scrutiny, but it is the captain, who is most vulnerable to criticism or praise.
Australian captain Michael Clarke and England skipper Alastair Cook, both batsmen par excellence have had their shares of highs and lows. If Cook was criticised in the summer Ashes for his defensive captaincy and failure to score with the bat despite winning the Ashes, Clarke too had his share of criticism for the loss.
This time, in return Ashes Down Under, it is Michael Clarke scoring with the bat and Cook scoring with his off field tactics. Clarke scored a blistering knock of 148 runs in the Adelaide Test and 113 at the Gabba Test. While a win at Gabba earned him a spot in Ashes history, as it was England`s one of the worst Ashes defeats, a win (which is quite likely) again at Adelaide will further seal Australia`s dominance here. Scoring is done but he has to deal with his team`s sledging tactics which is drawing criticisms. David Warner, the Aussie bad-boy needs a captain`s reprimand, so does paceman Mitchell Johnson`s aggression. In fact, the captain himself needs to calm down a bit and let his bat do the talking.
Alastair Cook, meanwhile is struggling with his form. Here in Australia, with his captaincy too. A loss in Gabba has it seems taken a toll on his players. Jonathan Trott`s exit added to their miseries. It is hard to imagine this is the same man who in 2010-11 Ashes series, scored a double ton and made 766 runs. In England this year, he scored merely 277 runs. At Gabba now, added merely 78 runs (13, 65) and was out at 3 runs in the first innings at Adelaide. He needs to find back his form, lift up his team`s morale and lead by example, which he has not been able to do till now.
While his on-field tactics are under criticism, his off-field strategies against sledging are commendable. Unlike his Aussie counterpart, who was fined for sledging in the first Test for threatening a player (of course he claims it wasn’t a one-sided affair, let`s not delve into that), Cook was decent enough to ask Clarke to maintain calm relations on field. Though considering it is an Ashes series, this might be a tough task for the players. However, as captains, again Cook and Clarke will be held responsible for their teammates’ acts.
Clearly, Cook and Clarke are handling a job meant not for the weak-minded, after all, leading teams that take the term `do-or-die` literally is quite a Herculean task.