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Alastair Cook's qualities as England captain have been widely debated. England's five-Test series against India is about to determine his future
July 8, 2014
Chappell: Difficult for Cook to improve in some areas
Amid all the advice and criticism heaped towards Alastair Cook in recent weeks, one truism has shone out: he needs to score more runs if he is to be an effective captain of England.
Cook may never be a Churchillian orator or a Napoleonic strategist. He may never shock or inspire with his words or his tactics.
But leadership comes in many forms. And the Cook who scored back-to-back centuries in Ahmedabad and Mumbai, the Cook who insisted that Kevin Pietersen was recalled at the end of 2012, the Cook who made seven centuries in his first 11 Tests as captain and the Cook who won nine and lost only one of his first 15 Tests as captain, did inspire and lift his team.
He might not offer genius, but he does offer hard work, commitment and determination. He led by example.
Whether such qualities are enough to succeed at this level remains to be seen. Indeed, the next seven weeks may define Cook's rein as captain; if England lose, it is hard to see how he can continue in the role.
But Cook's successes as captain seem to have been air-brushed out of history in recent times. To win in India, particularly having been a Test down, is a fine achievement. And, less than a year ago, he led England to a 3-0 Ashes victory. The complacency with which that result was greeted now seems incredible.
He has obvious limitations. His inability to find a solution to the Pietersen dilemma has not only weakened his side, but instigated a saga that continues to weigh him down. Equally he has struggled to integrate some characters - the likes of Nick Compton, Simon Kerrigan and Boyd Rankin - into a set-up that, if it were a little more hospitable, might coax the best out of more players.
But most of the criticism he has attracted has been for more mundane factors. It has been for his conservative field placings and safety-first declarations. It has been for a continuation of the tactics employed by Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower in taking England to No. 1 in the Test rankings and factors that constitute a relatively small fraction of the role of captain.
He knows he has to improve. He knows that his seamers will have to be utilised in shorter spells if they are to remain effective. He knows he has to find a way to cope without Graeme Swann's control and he knows there may be times when he has to be more inventive in the field.
But many of his faults have been exaggerated. While England certainly did not cover themselves in glory at Leeds, Shane Warne's suggestion that Cook's leadership was the worst he had seen in 25 years was hyperbole. In that period, we have seen captains urge players to underperform for money and to manipulate games for a leather jacket. In the grand scheme of things, Cook's decision to persist with a deep extra cover rather than a third slip does not amount to much.
Cook does not necessarily have to change his attritional style. It worked for Strauss and, if it comes naturally to Cook, it is better he sticks with it rather than trying to reinvent himself as an aggressive, risk-taker. It is just not his way and, in truth, it has rarely been the England way.
Besides, Cook was let down by his senior players as much as his own decision making against Sri Lanka. Many of the tactical failings for which he has been blamed would have been masked if his seamers had bowled fuller and his wicketkeeper taken a couple of chances. The fact that four players have registered centuries in their second Tests in recent months might even suggest that the team environment is improving.
It is hard to recall a time when England have had a captain that has not attracted an almost unbearable amount of criticism. Certainly Andrew Strauss, who even with his team at No. 1 in the Test ratings, faced calls to step down, knows how Cook is feeling. So does Mike Gatting, whose side won none of his final 14 Test in charge.
Even the best of recent vintage such as Mike Brearley, whose Test batting average of 22.88 would have seen him under immense pressure in the modern era, and Michael Vaughan, who was captain when England lost the 2007 series against India, had to deal with similar issues at one stage or another. Like the manager of the England football team, it is becoming a job in which it is impossible to please.
But, in the short term, the fact remains that many of the problems Cook currently faces will fade away if he can only rediscover his form with the bat. Without a century in 24 innings and averaging only 25.04 in that time, Cook knows he is not pulling his weight at a batsman. With little tactical acumen to compensate, that weakness is exacerbated.
There is no reason to suspect his dip in form - prolonged though it is - should be terminal. Anyone capable of making 25 Test centuries by the age of 28 has proved they are an exceptional player and, aged 29 now, the best may be ahead of him. The suggestion that bowlers have only just started testing him outside off stump seems naïve; it was always the default angle of attack.
"I'm desperately keen to lead from the front," Cook said on the eve of the Trent Bridge Test. "I know how important it is at the top of the order to do that.
"I'm in there because I'm one of the top six batters in the country. My job is to score the runs and set up the game for England. It doesn't matter whether you're captain or not.
"I haven't been doing that over the last year or so and no one is keener than me to put that right. I've worked very hard over the last 10 days. I've just got to make sure my mind is totally clear so that when I go out there I can concentrate on the most important thing, which is that ball coming down."
The India management, to their immense credit, have not sought to capitalise on Cook's difficulties. After the coach, Duncan Fletcher, backed him to recover his form at the start of tour media conference, their captain, MS Dhoni, utilised his pre-series media conference to urge Cook to ignore the criticism.
But other critics will be relentless and Cook admitted that he had required a "thick skin" in recent weeks. But he also reiterated his determination not to step down from the role whatever happens in the next 42 days.
"You have to be determined and stick to your guns. We all know you are judged on results and results have not been good enough. If we turn it round and win games of cricket things will be different.
"I'm incredibly proud to be England captain. I have thrown everything into it and continue to. Until that day the selectors decide I'm not the right man for the job I will continue to. It is a huge honour to do this and I can go to sleep knowing that I've thrown everything I've got into it."
Cook's hard work and determination have never been in doubt. The next seven weeks may well determine whether they are enough.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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