July 11, 2014

Are you born to captain?

Are some people just made to lead and the rest to follow? Let's examine the case of the two Captains Cook

Critics will change their tune if Alastair Cook manages to win the series against India © Getty Images

"The role of leadership is more significant in cricket than in any other sport," begins Mike Brearley in his 1985 introduction to The Art of Captaincy. And Brearley, a batsman of dubious Test mettle who inspired the quote from Australian Kim Hughes that he "had nothing going for him except his intelligence" was arguably the last England captain to be selected for his cerebral qualities rather than his playing ability.

On the last day of the second Test against Sri Lanka, Geoff Boycott revolved the cliché that captains "are born and not made" when he wondered what books Peter Moores would put on Alastair Cook's reading list. After a series loss in which Cook's tactics ("They seem to have a plan A and plan B is nearly non-existent" - Glenn McGrath) and ability as a motivator ("Fear of failure" - thanks, Pietersen) were called into question, Boycott and others have wondered if Cook, "a lovely lad", as Boycs kept repeating, was the right man for the job.

So is Professor Boycott correct? Is there a genetic trait for leadership?

Brearley admits "it is more agreeable to tell others what to do than to be told what to do", and that he is one of the natural captains, one of those who "like being bossy". Not only did Brearley have the strategic nous to steer England to Ashes victories, he had the man management skills to temper the personalities of a team including Ian Botham, Boycott and Bob Willis. But he was also a trained psychiatrist - made, or born?

There are certainly the noble and feted leaders who had that fabled aura - Churchill, Gandhi, Lincoln and Mandela. Towering figures who seemed destined from birth for others to follow.

On the fringes of Leicester Tigers rugby club as a youth player, I met Martin Johnson, former captain of England and the British and Irish Lions. His furrowed brow seemed chiselled from granite, and even as a young man he had a powerful and dark brooding that would only be satiated with a glittering career of winning. I barely knew him, and I would have followed him anywhere. It was no surprise he led the England team to the World Cup in 2003, and the British and Irish Lions series win in South Africa in 1997.

Just as James Cook had once run aground on the Great Barrier Reef, Alastair Cook was suddenly in charge of a sinking team, with crew members (Trott, Swann and Pietersen) either mutineering, retiring, or deciding they had their fill of the good ship Cricket

The explorer Captain James Cook rallied men to voyage with him into the unknown. He sailed the globe in search of lands that no other European had ever set eyes upon. When Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry wanted a rugged first officer of the USS Enterprise, it was the hardy Yorkshire boy turned sailor who inspired him to write the part of James T Kirk.

So what how does Alastair Cook compare to his namesake James?

First and foremost it was sailing excellence that propelled the young James to command his own vessel. Cook plied his trade as a teenage hand on the coal colliers that navigated the shifting shoals and rocky coasts of north-east England, and once his apprenticeship was completed he joined the Royal Navy, rapidly accelerating through the ranks.

The prodigious talents of the young Alastair also propelled him into early stardom. In 1998 the MCC played a fixture against Bedford School, and when the visitors were a man short they recruited the 14-year-old choirboy and clarinet player, who went on to score a ton against his classmates. In 2004 he was made captain of the England Under-19s, and in 2005 he was awarded PCA Young Cricketer of the Year.

Both Cooks rose quickly through the ranks. Both showed utter dedication to their professions and were put forward for leadership at a relatively early age - James was 39 when he was made lieutenant of the Endeavour and engaged to record the transit of Venus and search for Terra Australis, and Alastair was a youthful 27 (WG Grace didn't captain England until he was 40) when he pulled on the national armband.

Of Captain James Cook's three odysseys, it was the inaugural voyage, in which he sailed Europeans into Botany Bay and, as Star Trek fans are forever reminded, went where no (white) man had gone before, that was arguably his most successful.

Obviously we can directly compare this triumph of global exploration with Alastair Cook's batting and winning captaincy in the 2012 winter series versus India, when his startling run of form led England to their first Test series triumph there since 1984-85. Captain Cook (Alastair) had navigated his men to unlikely victory. However, the following summer the visiting Aussies came closer to reclaiming the Ashes than the 3-0 scoreline suggests. The leaks that appeared in the England hull over that series widened into gushing torrents by winter.

Then the sails came off. Mitchell Johnson and Brad Haddin scuppered England Down Under, and just as James Cook had once run aground on the Great Barrier Reef, Alastair Cook was suddenly in charge of a sinking team, with crew members (Trott, Swann and Pietersen) either mutineering, retiring, or deciding they had their fill of the good ship Cricket.

Perhaps we should stop the comparisons here, as I'm not sure how I can equate James Cook's death on a Hawaiian beach with Alastair Cook leading England out at Trent Bridge - that might be easier to do at the end of the series, when the highest-profile job in English cricket could also be the loneliest. As the sage Richie Benaud laments: "When you are winning, you are a hero. Lose, and the backslappers fade away."

Yet if Cook's charges claim the series, his doubters will be mocked, or forgotten. And Cook will be hailed as a natural leader of men, born to captain.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award