Click here to submit your sports results for The Canberra Times
Still Knox
License article

Ashes whitewash a master class in art of captaincy

Show comments

Analysis of how the Ashes captains manouvred their bowling attacks, and when wickets were taken, reveals how comprehensively Michael Clarke outwitted Alastair Cook.

England lost the Ashes in a series of ruinous batting collapses: 6 for 9 and 7 for 49 in Brisbane; 6 for 24 in Adelaide; 6 for 61 in Perth; 6 for 53 and 5 for 6 in Melbourne; and 5 for 17 and 4 for 8 in Sydney.

Losing wickets in clusters is devastating for a team, and gathers a life of its own in despair and panic. But it is only a consequence. What was the cause of England's propensity to lose wickets in a rush?

One factor was Clarke's clever manipulation of his attack. The contrasting overall impression of the two leaders, of Clarke rotating and reshuffling his bowlers with the hyperkinetic intensity of a New Delhi street cop while Cook passively let matches drift by, is not really borne out by the gross numbers. As the table shows, in the five Test matches Clarke only changed his bowlers with marginally greater frequency than Cook, once every 4.3 overs compared with once every 4.2.

What that figure hides is when the changes happened, and how strategic was Clarke's thinking. In the first three Tests, on the best batting wickets of the series, Clarke changed his bowlers 25 per cent more frequently than Cook. While Cook followed old formulae of giving Graeme Swann and James Anderson very long spells, Clarke was unafraid to shift his bowlers about, not just when they were not taking wickets but even when they were. In fact, a lot of his captaincy was counter-intuitive, often removing bowlers or their partners once a wicket had fallen. Cook, by contrast, kept faith in his stalwarts even when it became clear that they were not obtaining the movement that made them so dangerous in the past. The longer Anderson and Swann went without taking wickets, the longer Cook kept them on. The distribution of overs among the Englishmen by the end of each innings looked neat, precise and utterly pre-determined.


In each of those first three matches, England bowled roughly the same number of overs, 191 to 197. Only in the furnace of Perth did Cook rouse himself to change his bowlers more, but even then it was a minor adaptation, down below once every five overs for the first time. Clarke, by contrast, changed his bowlers every 3.4 overs in Perth, recognising the effect of the heat. Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris were kept fresh, but so were Australia's support bowlers. The two teams bowled the same number of overs in the Perth Test, but Clarke, with 52 bowling changes to Cook's 42, was considerably kinder to his men.

By Melbourne, when the Ashes were lost, Cook woke up to Clarke's tactics and tried to emulate them. In the MCG and SCG Tests, the balance shifted, and Cook changed his bowlers far more often than Clarke. But here was another example of how Cook was following schedules while Clarke was responding to conditions. Melbourne and Sydney were poorer batting wickets than Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Clarke recognised that these matches were going to be shorter, wickets would fall more frequently, and the weather was considerably gentler. He was also less able to depend on Shane Watson to relieve the frontline seamers. If anything, Cook's over-compensation in Melbourne and Sydney cost him as dearly as his inertia in the first three matches, though, to be fair, he was not helped by Swann's retirement. The futility of his attempt to copy Clarke was revealed on the fourth day in Melbourne, when Stuart Broad was in full flight and about to create havoc when Cook took him off after only two overs, saying he wanted to save him for when the ball got more roughed-up for reverse swing. By the time Broad came back, the match was gone. Just as he had failed through inflexibility earlier in the series, Cook was now failing through over-tricky over-thinking.

A telling impact of Clarke's changes, whether he did it rapidly in the early Tests or more patiently in the later ones, was how often wickets were taken by refreshed bowlers early in their spells. During the series, Australian bowlers took a wicket in the first over of a new spell 24 times, compared to England's 13. In all, an astonishing 48 of the 100 wickets the Australian bowlers took came in the first or second over of a new spell. This reflects the success of Clarke's tactics, and also the skill of those bowlers in hitting their line and length immediately. Mitchell Johnson's Adelaide dismissals of Alastair Cook and Harris's first-baller of the English captain in Perth were the headline moments; but they signified a general capacity to rip in from the outset, without "looseners". Because they were not given long rests between their bowling spells, of course, they needed less time to warm up.

The Australians talked a great deal about bowling in partnerships, but the most productive of them was an unexpected one. Johnson and Harris captured more than half the English wickets, but not necessarily while bowling together. Johnson took 20 of his 37 wickets, in fact, while Nathan Lyon was working from the other end. Lyon took 14 of his 19 wickets while in tandem with Johnson. The big England collapses in both innings in Brisbane, in the first innings in Adelaide, and in the second innings in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, all occurred while Johnson and Lyon were operating together.

In fact, when it comes to "team" bowling, Lyon was the most valuable in building pressure at one end before a wicket fell at the other. He took 19 wickets himself, but bowled the preceding over for 36 other wickets, nearly twice as many as any other bowler.

Johnson and Lyon – who'd have thunk it? Not quite Warne and McGrath, perhaps, but no less effective this summer. Yet again, it was captaincy that synchronised them. When Clarke is credited for his on-field gifts as a master manipulator, and when he is likened to Mark Taylor, this is where it comes from.