Ashes 2015: Michael Clarke's dejection is evident but Alastair Cook embraces England's bright future

Captains face each other for last time at The Oval after roller-coaster series which saw home side rediscover zest for game

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The Independent Online

Two captains, two results, two futures. One spoke fondly, happily, victoriously of what he and his team might now achieve together in the years ahead, of treading in the glorious sunlit uplands.

The other was less engaged, contemplating an enforced retirement in defeat, barely able to acknowledge the sincere good wishes of his peers, sternly conceding that the criticism of his team and its leader was deserved, the slough of despond all around. Here were Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke at The Oval.

And on Thursday at this iconic ground, where so many Ashes contests have been decided – but not this one – they will lead their teams in the fifth and final Investec Test of the summer. It is the 15th time that Cook and Clarke have opposed each other as captains, more than any other pair in the Ashes.

Six of the previous 14 have been won by England and six by Australia. In its way then, although the home side are 3-1 ahead with the Ashes annexed, this is a decider of its own between two men whose fortunes have changed radically in a few months, reflecting perfectly the capricious nature of professional sport, maybe of life. England ought to win, probably inside four days, on another sporting pitch.


Cook came into this season with his job not so much on the line as rapidly disappearing down the pan. He had been given the support of the incoming director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, and if that was worth tangibly more than the kiss of death that is the conventional vote of confidence, then any stay  of execution still depended on what happened against Australia.

It has gone more perfectly than Cook could have imagined. There was a school of thought that he might depart the captaincy whatever happened in this series, that he might have no more to prove. But that was before he and England were re-energised, before they somehow escaped their previous existences.

Cook is going nowhere now. In an interview last week he suggested that he would like to continue and, without taking much for granted (as if a 3-1 lead in the Ashes would allow you to do that), he reiterated it here – as long as it was all right with both Strauss and the coach, Trevor Bayliss.

“A lot’s been said. I didn’t want to sound all negative in the interview last week,” he said. “It was quite an honest interview. I’ve had a couple of wobbles but I think the way this side have taken to this summer – the way they have gone about their business and the support I have had from them – it feels right for the moment that I carry on, if the guys want me to do it. I’ve felt over the last six months or so, as a captain, a lot better about myself.”

But Cook can now see something else in this team, something that can be dangerous in players who have enjoyed a great triumph. He can see more triumphs and he wants to help this team – his team – to attain them.

“The guys have been fantastic this summer, the way they have gone about our business and really fronted up to the challenge,” said Cook. “We’ve played two really good sides and I think we’ve played some really good cricket, which  the public has enjoyed watching. That’s what has been exciting.

“Perhaps unlike other teams in the past – like 2005, that Ashes was their pinnacle and what they built up to for two-three years – I genuinely believe this side has more ahead of it.

“You’ll see the likes of Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes improving as cricketers and Joe Root, even though he’s No 1 [in the world], getting better. I saw a stat that the 2010 side was two or three years older on average, so this is a younger side and it’s very exciting.”

Alastair Cook laughs during a nets session at The Oval on Wednesday (PA)

At an average age of 27.32 the England team at Trent Bridge were hardly in the first flush (Cook and Ian Bell are survivors of the youngest England team of all, in Mohali in 2006) but it is the youngest in an Ashes match at home since 1993. The difference is that this team have not only won but look full of life.

Far from flawless, they have gone about their work with a zest and enjoyment not always apparent in England teams. It is worth repeating that New Zealand, the first tourists of the season, may have passed on an important lesson in  this regard – enjoy it now because you never know when it might end.

The sight of Michael Clarke on the Sydney quayside early last year was a joy to behold. His side had just defeated England 5-0 and he was as relaxed as he was vindicated. This was the celebration party and the team seemed to be his for as long as he wanted.

But as these past weeks have unfolded, it has been clear that he and the Australian management could hardly wait to be rid of each other. Clarke went of his own accord on the last day of the Test at Nottingham two weeks ago, but he made his move with days to spare. Had he delayed it a match longer the decision would not have been his to make.

He cut an aloof, taciturn and disappointing figure. He said all the right things: he had never dreamt of being captain of Australia, he was grateful to the players he had played with and against, he felt it was the right time to go.

At no point did he convey the impression that he had enjoyed a single minute of an illustrious career. There was no emotion because he was simply going through the motions. There was not the hint of a smile, even when he was invited to remember the good times. He was not truculent exactly, but this was not a man who seemed as though he might be able to galvanise his men one last time: let’s do it for Michael.

Cook’s mood, understandably more upbeat, was emphasised by his deliberate breaking with his own tradition. In reporting that Jimmy Anderson was not fit enough to play because of a side strain, Cook also said that the team would be unchanged. Usually, he insists that nothing can be revealed until the toss.

Clarke, on the other hand, said a touch grumpily that the selectors had not yet let him know what team he would lead, although the fast bowler, Josh Hazlewood, will not play because of a series of niggles. That seems to open the way for Patrick Cummins to play his second Test match, nearly four years after his first. He is still only 22.

Cook and Clarke will have much different things on their minds on Friday. The Ashes is the oldest surviving international sporting contest. It is perhaps for that reason that it can change lives.

Oval details: Fifth Test preview

England A N Cook (capt),  A Lyth, I R Bell, J E Root, J M Bairstow, B A Stokes, J C Buttler (wkt), M M Ali, S C J Broad, M A Wood, S T Finn.

Australia (probable) M J Clarke (capt), C J L Rogers, D A Warner, S P D Smith, A C Voges, M R Marsh, P M Nevill (wkt), M G Johnson, M A Starc, P J Cummins, N M Lyon.

Umpires A Dar (Pak) & K Dharmasena (SL).

Weather Dry and overcast, with late sunshine. Max temp: 22C

TV 10am-7pm, Sky Sports Ashes (highlights: 7-8pm, Channel 5)

Pitch report Has a greenish tinge; likely to have some carry, a little pace, some swing and, like its two immediate predecessors, offer something to the bowler hitting the seam.

First Test Eng won by 169 runs

Second Test Aus by 405 runs

Third Test Eng by eight wkts

Fourth Test Eng by inn & 78 runs