July 10, 2011

Mike Holmans

Mission accomplished for Cook

Mike Holmans
Alastair Cook picked off regular boundaries to offset a slow start from England at Lord's, England v Sri Lanka, 3rd ODI, Lord's July 3 2011
Should anyone have been surprised by Alastair Cook's one-day form against Sri Lanka?  © Getty Images
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Mission accomplished, and then some. Rarely has a newly-appointed England captain achieved so much in his first series in charge. Not only did the team beat the World Cup runners-up 3-2, but he was the outstanding player from either side and shattered the preconceptions with which he had been saddled. Quite something for someone people had been queueing up to denounce as an impostor.

Very few people outside the inner circles of the England management or, presumably, Alastair Cook's family and friends had been enthusiastic about his appointment.

Some were openly hostile and pointed to his career ODI strike-rate as proof that he was not and could not be an effective opening batsman in limited-over cricket. Following the disappointing World Cup campaign, the last thing that the ODI squad needed was a lame duck captain who had clearly only been given the job so that he could gain some captaincy experience before taking the reins of the Test side. I had considerable sympathy with that view, but was prepared to wait and see.

I had had exactly the same reservations about the appointment of Andrew Strauss two years ago, saying that he should not be allowed within a hundred miles of a limited-over team. If anyone had then tried to tell me that Strauss would win a Man-of-the-Match award for his batting in a World Cup match in which Sachin Tendulkar scored a typically-classy hundred, I'd have laughed myself silly. As we all now know, though, he did precisely that. It may have been his only good innings in 2011, but he had played quite a number of similar ones during 2010, thus affording me several fine dinners of roast words with all the trimmings.

If Strauss could expand his game that dramatically, it would have been daft to assume that Cook was incapable of doing the same. He at least deserved a chance to show what he could do.

He failed at the Oval. At Headingley, 48 off 52 balls was encouraging even though the game was resoundingly lost. Then came Lord's, where his innings did a lot to convince me.

The write-ups the following day made much of his slow scoring in the first half of his innings, citing it as evidence that he was still basically the plodder he was suspected of being, but that was not the innings I'd seen.

There were indeed a lot of dot balls, but there are several ways in which a dot can occur. If Cook were plodding, they would indicate blocks and leaves, but in reality a large number of them were balls which had been hit powerfully to fielders or which he had attempted to heave over the boundary but had missed completely. This was not a man trying to hang around but one who was trying very hard – though failing – to get on with it as fast as possible.

The sensible criticism of his play was that it was unwise: with Kevin Pietersen going well at the other end, Cook might well have done better to nudge and nurdle the singles to get off strike. I suspect, though, that he was playing to his critics rather than properly playing the situation. Strike-rotation would not have convinced anyone that he had the power game people thought he lacked: they wanted to see him slogging, so that's what he attempted to give them.

The difference in the second half of his Lord's effort was not that he changed his approach but that he started to connect with his big shots – and then the runs flowed freely. As they then did at Trent Bridge and Old Trafford, with the result that it will be a long time before anyone again questions his suitability for the role of ODI opener.

The thing is, the many with low expectations of him (including me) had been guilty of ignoring the evidence that had been there for all to see.

His ODI record was pretty old. He had been dropped, rightly, in 2008 because his scoring-rate of 68.15 was pathetic.

But he was then 23 years old, still a relative baby in international terms and it was rather early for an ambitious young man to accept that his ODI career was over. So he went back to Essex and worked on his limited-over game.

In 2009, he went to The Oval for a Twenty20 match against Surrey and hit 100 not out off 57 balls. In the 2010 Friend Provident t20, he hit 51 off 36 against Kent, 73 off 53 against Gloucestershire, and 63 off 44 against Sussex. In the domestic 40-over tournament, he hit centuries in both 2009 (against Hampshire) and 2010 (against Yorkshire), and a 96 this year against Nottinghamshire, all at strike-rates in the 90s or higher. These are not the performances of a plodder.

Also last year, he stood in for Strauss as both opener and captain for England's ODI series in Bangladesh, where he scored 156 runs in three innings at a strike rate of 90.69, again hardly evidence of plodding.

Why did we all fail to register any of this and continue to pigeonhole him as a Test-only classicist?

Perhaps because Team England did not see fit to bring him back on a regular basis. How many comments on his recent appointment, for instance, made reference to the fact that he was not in the World Cup squad?

The trouble with that superficial analysis is that it ignored a pretty significant question: whose place should he have had? Pietersen's? Collingwood's? Go back to that Bangladesh series, though, and the answer makes everything plain: his slot was Strauss', and it made no more sense to pick him as well as Strauss as it would have done to pick two wicketkeepers in the XI.

And then there was his Test play: his marathon performances in the winter's Ashes were models of patience and discipline, the complete antithesis of Powerplay batting. For those with eyes to see, though, there were hints to pick up. After all, it's not as though it's unknown for class players to be highly methodical in Test cricket while being free scorers in the shorter forms - Jacques Kallis and Shiv Chanderpaul to name but two.

Cook may not have blazed away at Brisbane, but the attacking shots he did play were a lot more natural-looking than they had been in previous years. I noticed that his knee was bending when he drove, making for a more-flowing as well as a more-powerful shot, but I failed to make the connection.

This is why we have selectors and a continuous England team management, of course. It's now obvious that they have been carefully monitoring and grooming Cook for his new role for a good couple of years and have known precisely what they were up to.

The moral is that those of us who have been astonished by Cook's performances against Sri Lanka have only got ourselves to blame.

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Posted by shinybeast on (July 11, 2011, 14:17 GMT)

I couldn't understand the argument that Cook shouldn't be included in the team, let alone be captain, because he wasn't in the World Cup squad - it was obvious that he wasn't included because of Strauss opening. As an Essex supporter, I'd noted the improvement in his one-day cricket the past two seasons - while lacking the range of shots of Pietersen and Morgan, he is improving all the time and obviously working on increasing his range of strokes. The question, as noted by Anonymous above, is whether the efforts to prove his doubters wrong in the one-day side, and the strain of captaining that team, will adversely effect his Test form. If this proves the case initially, I'm sure that, given his determination, it will prove just a short-term lapse.

Posted by Anonymous on (July 11, 2011, 13:14 GMT)

Jackiel, an average of 33 and an SR of 80 odd for an opener in limited overs cricket in England are not bad at all. Outside of Taunton, and Marcus Trescothick's house in particular, you won't find many better. Over the last year or so, since he cleared that drop in form, Cook has looked every inch a World Class batsman and potential future legend of the game to me. My only concern with him entering the ODI team at all, never mind as captain, was that it may affect his monumental Test form which probably benefited from his regular rest during ODI series and the opportunities he had to work on his game in the lower pressure world of County Cricket. This may yet still happen.

Posted by Matt Chambers on (July 11, 2011, 11:10 GMT)

Cook is the classiest batsman of his generation, mentally hard as nails and has the skill to go with it. There was never any doubt that he would give the task 100%, and when he turns his mind to something he always succeeds. A great in the making.

Posted by Mark Thornton on (July 11, 2011, 9:40 GMT)

Top class article - many thanks! If I could add one further point, Cook also scored > 200 in a day for Essex against the 2005 Australians, who were not a shabby team!

Posted by JackieL on (July 11, 2011, 9:27 GMT)

You could call this going from one extreme to the other. You have not cited stats but examples. The examples are compelling but the stats for Essex last year are not. 40-over av of 33 SR 83 tells us that there must have been numerous occasions when he failed to impress. This is why he wasn't selected. Cook has a steely resolve but he was out of form last year. What Cook possesses denied to other players is his coach's backing. Flower promoted Cook against the advice of the selectors. Only time will tell if that ruthlessness was justified (perhaps ruthlessness is never justified). Five matches will not tell us. Luck can play an enormous role in momentum. If Dilshan had held his simple catch Cook would have had two poor innings to start. But Cook was greatly motivated by media attacks and it is to his credit that he rallied. However KP and Bell seem to be the victims so far. Bell despatched to 6 and KP opening replaced by Kieswetter. Flower's man management cannot only extend to Cook.

Posted by Martin on (July 11, 2011, 9:17 GMT)

Very well written, it's nice to see someone a) willing to have their initial opinion overtaken by facts b) look at his record with Essex. I'm an Essex fan and Cook would get into what it, on paper, one of the stronger limited overs teams in the country. His 20/20 and limited overs record for us shows anyone who cares to look that he can thrive in ODI cricket

Posted by Bogie55 on (July 11, 2011, 8:56 GMT)

Nicely worded article - I've been pointing at the same statistics throughout the series to my doubting friends, and have enjoyed the way Cook has steadily improved both his batting and his captaincy. Clive is absolutely correct to single out Cook's steely resolve too - he's becoming a very impressive and admirable sportsman.

Posted by Clive Nurse on (July 11, 2011, 8:22 GMT)

Cook's limited shot repertoire is well known to all armchair critics. What is not so evident is his steely core which reminds me of Boycott, Barrington and Edrich (John). He will always adapt, modify and fine tune his approach and the emergence of a decent and effective cover drive over the last 6 months is proof for me. A Gower he ain't, a Cook he certainly is and will score more Test runs than any other English batsman, at a higher average and will also show an effectiveness at the top of the order in ODI's, something England have lacked (Trescothick apart) since Gooch. He is learning to pierce fields and, if (sorry, when) he masters that art, just watch his scoring rate and average rocket upwards. If he has made anything clear in the last 12 months, it is 'Never assume he can't do the job'. He can, and will

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