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February 27, 2010
Alastair Cook has done all the right things in preparation for his first full series as England captain. He's been in the runs with two half-centuries in the warm-ups in Fatullah, and he's captained the side to a pair of trouble-free victories. At Mirpur on Sunday, he will lead them out for the first time in a 50-over contest, fully aware of the pitfalls that await against a Bangladesh side that know, just occasionally, how to put together a matchwinning performance.
Cook's only previous experience of the England captaincy was a chastening one - he took over the role at short notice in South Africa in November, when Paul Collingwood pulled out of the second Twenty20 at Centurion, and was left gesturing with the futility of a Dhaka traffic cop as Loots Bosman and Graeme Smith powered their side to an incredible total of 241 for 6.
Three months down the line, however, and this time Cook is ready for the challenge that awaits. Despite not having played in an ODI since November 2008, he looked, on the eve of the series, like a man who was growing in authority - even if, as Stuart Broad pointed out, he has yet to vacate his seat among the lads at the back of the team bus.
"It's a hugely proud moment for me," said Cook. "I'm nervous and excited. It's a challenge, but the night before the first warm-up I was really nervous. Once I got through that game I felt far more settled in terms of being comfortable in field positions, and little things. That game was the start of my captaincy proper in terms of ordering the lads around and making the decisions. In an international game there's obviously more pressure, but a week into it I feel more comfortable.
"The Twenty20 game [in South Africa] I only found out I'd captain three hours before the game with Colly pulling up with his back," he recalled. "It was very chaotic that whole day and the lads were just trying to help. Now I feel more comfortable in the role and they feel more comfortable in me. These things take time. It was a mad day and a mad game, and it does not help that we got panned.
Cook's personal excitement ought to go a long way towards squashing any tendency towards complacency that might otherwise have set in against their unfancied opponents. "Anyone can beat anyone on any day, but if we turn up just thinking we are going to win, then we are going to come very much unstuck. We've got to respect them - we are respecting them, because they are an excellent side - and we've got to play better cricket than them."
"The biggest lesson from this week is definitely sticking to your instincts," he added. "You're only judged on the decisions you make. You're only judged on the right or wrong ones. You'll never know because hindsight is the easiest place to captain. You never quite know the right answer, but the only way you can find out is by results.
Though the chance to lead the side in Fatullah was important in taking the edge off Cook's nerves ahead of Sunday's match, perhaps the most important aspect of the build-up period has been the chance to tighten that all-important captain-coach bond with Andy Flower. And, having played alongside each other during Cook's early days as a professional at Essex, the pair have had a head-start in that regard.
"I've known Andy since I was 18, I've grown up all my playing days with him and when I came into the England team he was assistant coach," he said. "He's fantastic, a true thinker of the game and it's a pleasure to work with him. We're making strides on building that relationship as captain and coach, these things do take time and hopefully we will get the chance to work more on that and improve as we go on."
Although Cook was not able to take a proper look at the wicket until England practiced under the floodlights later in the evening, there seems little doubt about what they can expect. Bangladesh's coach, Jamie Siddons, stressed that his team play at their best in their own conditions, which means that the Dhaka track is likely to be something of a pancake.
"I imagine it will be a very typical subcontinent wicket," said Cook. "It will be slow, I imagine it might turn a little bit, but I'm not sure it will change too much in 100 overs. It will be a fair wicket with something in it for the batters to start with, but with the bowlers coming into it when the ball goes soft. Obviously Bangladesh conditions are totally different to what we are used to at home, but we spent this last week getting used to that, both here and in Dubai, and hopefully we can go out and play some good cricket."
Either way, England will have to be on their guard, particularly against a sizeable Bangladeshi spin contingent lead, of course, by the captain, Shakib Al Hasan, who is currently rated as one of the leading allrounders in the world. He will doubtless pose a challenge to the debutant Craig Kieswetter, who is certain to open alongside Cook, and it is highly likely that Matt Prior will also feature, although it remains to be seen which of the two will be asked to keep wicket.
"There's a possibility of playing two wicketkeepers," said Cook. "Kiesy's come in and that Twenty20 [against the Lions] made everyone stand up and take notice. To come in on his England debut and play with so much composure and not seem fazed. The way he went about it, not the runs he scored, has impressed a lot of us. He will be opening the batting. He deserves that with the runs he's got. I've been very impressed with him."
Prior's retention means no place for Jonathan Trott, whose stock has plummeted since he became an instant England hero with his debut century against Australia at The Oval back in August. A tailing-off of form in South Africa was couple with an unexpectedly anxious demeanour at the crease, but Cook was sure that he'd come back stronger for the experience.
"Trotty's a tough character and he proved that in the Australia series," Cook said. "He started really well at the start of the South Africa tour before fading. That was his first international tour as an England player and it was a long and tough one too. It's a different angle playing three months on tour to county cricket. The things he learnt from South Africa will help in good stead - in terms of managing intensity as a player, to prolong himself for three months."
Cook himself is coming back into the limited-overs set-up after a spell on the sidelines, but he believes he is a much more complete player than the slightly one-dimensional character who was last seen in coloured clothing. Extensive work with Graham Gooch at the end of the English summer resulted in a tweaked technique, and Cook himself credits the domestic Twenty20 Cup for coaxing him out of his shell.
"I'm desperate to show to people I can play one-day cricket," he said. "Last summer when I played Twenty20 cricket for Essex it really helped and in that form you just express yourself. You don't have time to think about failure, and you just go out and belt it. I was playing shots I didn't think I could play and for three weeks I suddenly thought: 'I can!' When I went back to Essex after the Ashes, I scored two hundreds, and it's amazing what confidence does."
Such sentiments might apply equally to England's opponents, who believe that the gulf between the sides is narrower than at any time in their previous eight ODI meetings. "They are a full international side and we've got to respect that," said Cook. "They've got some excellent players without a doubt, but it's up to us as the English side to play better cricket than them.
"We've improved as players of spin, and we've played against the best in the world and done well. Obviously it's going to be tough here, Bangladesh have some excellent spinners, but we as players, as batters, we have to score the runs against them."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. Go to http://twitter.com/miller_cricket to follow him on Twitter through the England tour of Bangladesh.Feeds: Andrew Miller
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