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Criticism for Cook, acclaim for Clarke in five-month role reversal

THE infamous 5-0 whitewash of 2006/07, that grand farewell of a great team, is creeping steadily and worryingly back into the consciousness of the traumatised England support.

Australia's players celebrate after taking the last wicket of James Anderson to win back the Ashes with two matches to spare; Michael Clarke's side are focused now on winning in Melbourne and Sydney to seal a 5-0 whitewash of England.
Australia's players celebrate after taking the last wicket of James Anderson to win back the Ashes with two matches to spare; Michael Clarke's side are focused now on winning in Melbourne and Sydney to seal a 5-0 whitewash of England.

"No, not again," they moan in their sleep, tossing and turning as the smooth agony of Test Match Special, playing on a blinking clock radio, interrupts the midnight quiet.

That team - led by the exposed, hapless darling, Andrew Flintoff - were rightly pilloried at the time for the way they consistently collapsed to defeat from winning - or at least match-saving - positions. This new England, facing merely a good side - albeit one with a very efficient bowling unit - have failed to reach any heights from which to fall.

Just like seven years ago, though, there has been a consistently broadcast image: that of the captain, crushed in the middle, the focus of a hundred cameras, broken beneath the breathless Australian onslaught.

Alastair Cook will still be part of this England side for years to come, of course - and likely as skipper - but the weight of that burden is now furrowed on his sweatless brow.

"It hurts like hell when you come into a contest and end up being second best," he said. "As a sportsman, to admit that is quite hard."

For a while, it looked like a match made in heaven - the relaxed, chisel-jawed farmer, leading by example, striding coolly out into the middle to face down the quickest and best the world could throw at him.

"He's too negative," some whispered, but they were shushed as the runs accumulated and the team kept winning.

Now, though, the honeymoon period is over, and the team of captain and coach must face the flak, just as they have collected the acclaim in years and months past.

"Whether I could have done more, of course, that's the first place you look when you lose," he admitted. "As a captain, the buck stops with you. Am I managing the players right; am I doing the right things out in the middle? We have to have some honest chats."

With several stalwarts and key pieces of the England puzzle looking as if they are fit only to be put back in the box, Cook was asked if this was a side on the wane.

"The last three results suggest that," he answered. "You deal in facts, and we lost three games. [But] you only have to look at the Australian side - there are a few guys the back end of 30 who are delivering success for them."

His opposite number, Michael Clarke, was, on the other hand, naturally ebullient. Once derided as a model-dating, earring-wearing pretty boy not capable of summoning the steely gaze of the Australia captain, he has surely won over any remaining critics, outthinking and attacking Cook at every turn with all the ruthlessness of a cold-hearted father playing draughts with his crying son, insisting to a disapproving wife that the boy will never learn anything by going easy on him.

Being caught on the stump microphone threatening to break James Anderson's arm did him no harm in the eyes of the Australian public either.

"Today, we brought it home," admitted Clarke. "To get the Ashes back is so special because of the work these guys have put in."

That seven-years-old whitewash looks within reach now, and Clarke was careful to give that victory respect while talking up the worthiness of this one. But after all, he reasoned, that team avenged just one loss. Three series of hurt have just been laid to rest, somewhere down deep in the Perth wicket's cracks.

"It's as big, there's no doubt about it," he said. "I certainly don't want to disrespect 2006/07 - that was a very special series at a very different time in my career. I was a lot younger . . . a little bit older, a little bit greyer. This is certainly as special.

"I don't think you'll find one bloke in that dressing room who won't say that this is the pinnacle."

Clarke also defended his opposite number - perhaps keen to test out Cook's dull wits again next time, if his ailing back can still bear the weight of all the runs - insisting he could sympathise and stressing how quickly the turned tide can be shooed back around.

"I know what it feels like to sit on the other side and not get the result," he said. "But that doesn't mean you haven't got the best captain there."

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