The fourth Test at Trent Bridge represents an opportunity for Alastair Cook to put an end to nearly two years of intense pressure.
Cook has grown as a leader during this time and probably as a person too. He needed to develop flexibility with his captaincy, breaking away from conservatism and trusting his players to play their way. From where I am sitting, this has occurred this summer. Whether it results in an Ashes win is another thing, because Australia won’t give up the urn without an almighty fight.
In the past I have felt Cook has been too cautious and needed to develop a ruthless, aggressive streak that saw the foot firmly placed on the opposition’s throat when his side were on top. He has free spirits in his team now and it’s no surprise their results have been inconsistent. The balance going forward for Cook is knowing when to stamp your authority and when to give them a looser leash.
In this Test, neither side can afford to think about the end result. Cook’s men must forget they are 2-1 up and that two draws would regain the Ashes. They need to go into the match preaching an aggressive, positive mindset and know that Australia have no choice but to go for it. This will present opportunities to score runs and take wickets against them.
Aggressive cricket has been spoken about a lot this summer and sometimes it is not fully understood. In terms of batting, it is about getting yourself in a position to play the positive shot. If it is suddenly not on, you are still in the best position to defend it. Trying the reverse, where you start with a defensive approach and then go to attack when a chance presents itself, is much harder.
Michael Clarke’s bowlers showed at Edgbaston that they sometimes search for wickets and must be wary of falling into this trap again because if England’s batsmen adopt this aggressive approach, then they will punish them. They must be disciplined.
Australia’s top six batsmen, who from reports are facing another pitch like the one in Birmingham, now need to step up in this series. They can talk all they want but at the end of the day, my message to them, as individuals and as a group, is to knuckle down and do their job.
They need to focus on forging partnerships. Do that and the runs will appear on the board. That is their only job and how they go about it is up to them. David Warner can go smash, bang, wallop, Chris Rogers can go the more watchful route, but get those runs on the board or the Ashes will be gone.
Clarke, amid a slump in runs, has responded to questions about his desire to continue in Test cricket in no uncertain terms and has pointed to his work ethic as evidence he is not winding down. In this respect, he cannot be questioned – he puts the hours in and gives it 100% and I for one applaud this.
I’m not convinced every player out there can say the same and so from his perspective, that is a pretty good place to be. I tell our players at Yorkshire to give themselves the best chance to be successful and Clarke is certainly doing that in the run up to this crucial Test match.
Whether he can reverse the trend remains to be seen, of course. His returns with the bat have been down in this series and the brutal fact – as I stated earlier in the week – is that this will be how he is judged. It’s how every cricketer is judged.
Why is he not performing to the standards he has set in a glittering career? Are the back and hamstrings that have troubled him in the past not as good as he claims? Is this seeing him play from the crease and not get to the ball? Only he truly knows.
Former players like myself are going to voice opinions and this will only go away if he delivers. Clarke has it in him. But then I knew very early on in our time together playing for Australia that he was a tough nut. It was in a press conference, as it happens, when it was put to him that Mark Waugh, the great Australian batsman, had stated on commentary that his game needed to “tighten up”.
Clarke didn’t shrug this off. He said he respected the view of a former player like Junior but did not know what he meant by this and invited him to come to the nets to give an explanation. It told me very early on in his career that this is a guy who stands his ground; he thinks about his game, he’s switched on and has more than a bit about him.
If he fails in these next two Tests he will be under massive pressure – that’s the nature of professional sport – but he has given himself the best chance to perform and that is all you can ever ask.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010