Rival skippers Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke both have particular reasons for wanting to win the upcoming Ashes series that begins with the first cricket Test in Cardiff starting on Wednesday.
For England skipper Cook, an Ashes series win would be the ideal reward for several difficult years which included a 5-0 whitewash reversal ‘Down Under’ in 2013/14, the fall-out from the international exile of Kevin Pietersen and a personal loss of form.
Meanwhile an Ashes series win in England is one of the few outstanding achievements left for Clarke to fulfil in the course of a brilliant career, with the star batsman’s three previous Test series in Britain ending in defeat.
Clarke has a reputation for being a bolder and more aggressive leader in the field than Cook and Australia great Shane Warne, himself a renowned cricket tactician, said he always detected the makings of a future skipper in his compatriot when they played together at English county side Hampshire in 2004.
“We stood alongside each other in the slips and chatted all day about captaincy,” Warne told the Sunday Times.
“He showed a great cricket brain for one with so little big-match experience under his belt.”
Clarke, however, has not always had the support of his players as was shown by the fall-out from the ‘homework gate’ affair in India, although there appears to be far greater harmony within the Australia camp since Darren Lehmann replaced Mickey Arthur as coach on the eve of the 2013 Ashes in England.
Cook, by contrast, has been a less divisive figure within his own side and even the exiled Pietersen, in the midst of his controversial autobiography, said his criticisms of Cook were not personal.
This Ashes campaign will be Cook’s first as Test skipper since the appointment of Australian Trevor Bayliss as England coach.
Bayliss has said England must “fight fire with fire” if they are to regain the Ashes from Australia.
This has led to speculation that Cook may find it difficult to work on a tactical level with Bayliss.
“I’m not sure if that’s exactly in Alastair Cook’s DNA to be really able to put a game on the line,” said Australia all-rounder Shane Watson.
Cook has shown a return to form this year with a hundred against the West Indies in the Caribbean and a fine century against New Zealand at Lord’s.
This has been heartening for England, as so much of Cook’s leadership style is based upon his own run-scoring. Often differences in captaincy style are simply a reflection of the resources available to a skipper and Clarke, certainly in respect of fast bowlers, has had the stronger hand in recent years.
But the fact that Clarke eventually set a defensive field when off-spinner Nathan Lyon came under fire during Australia’s final warm-up match against Essex, was a reminder that even the most innovative captaincy strategies have their limits.
As late Australia great Richie Benaud, one of Test cricket’s most celebrated skippers, once famously observed: “Captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill, but don’t try it without the 10 percent.”