Mike Holmans July 10, 2011

Mission accomplished for Cook

Mission accomplished, and then some

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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