England v India, 4th Investec Test, Old Trafford August 5, 2014

Cook's subtle skills inspire England

His captaincy may never be associated with tactical genius or stirring words but Alastair Cook's style of leadership is appreciated by his players

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Cook praises Finn revival

Leadership comes in many forms. While some leaders, in a cricket context, might inspire with their tactics, others will use oratory.

Alastair Cook will probably never be either sort of captain. Instead, Cook has been, at his best, the type of captain to lead by example. The sort of leader who, in India towards the end of 2012, inspired his team with excellent individual batting that showed his colleagues how the spinners could be combated.

But while Cook continues to be judged by his on-field tactics and field placings - a key part of captaincy, it is true, but far from the only area of relevance - there is growing evidence to suggest that he demonstrates admirable leadership qualities - less obvious qualities, perhaps, but just as valuable - in other facets of the game.

There were two examples of this as England warmed-up for the fourth Investec Test at Old Trafford. While neither example would be apparent to those in the stands or the media boxes, both could be argued to have contributed to England's victory in Southampton.

The first came as Gary Ballance reflected on his brush with the down side of celebrity. Ballance admitted he was "embarrassed" and "nervous" as he joined up with the England squad ahead of the Lord's Test just as details of a drunken night out in Nottingham emerged. Ballance, clearly a little the worse for wear in a club, was pictured with his shirt off along with the quote: "I'm not a cricketer tonight, I'm a drunken bastard."

But Cook, recognising that Ballance was simply a young man enjoying a rare night off, took him for dinner with a couple of other team-mates and ensured he immediately felt welcome back.

"Cooky took me out for some food with Joe Root and Matt Prior," Ballance said. "I felt disappointed that I had let the lads down the night before a Test match, which was embarrassing and not what you want.

"But Cooky just said 'these things happen' and that in a few days time you would be laughing about it. It will all be forgotten about. It wasn't really a serious telling off. It was more a suggestion that I should learn from it and not do it again."

As a consequence, Ballance immediately felt comfortable again in the England environment - while being gently reminded of his responsibilities as an international sportsman - and was in a frame of mind to contribute with centuries at Lord's and the Ageas Bowl. A less sensitive captain might have ranted, raved or even ignored a young player in such circumstances. If you consider the treatment of Darren Pattinson, who was not welcomed into the dressing room as he might have been by Michael Vaughan, or Mike Smith, who suffered similarly under Mike Atherton, it is not hard to understand the value of more benevolent captaincy.

Yet Vaughan and Atherton are rated as fine tactical captains, and Cook is seen as the novice.

A short while after Ballance recounted his experiences, Ian Bell reflected on the mood in the England camp ahead of the Southampton Test. Again, he highlighted the contribution of Cook in focusing the minds of the batting unit.

"Cook spoke really well, as he always does to the team," Bell said. "It was in a meeting of the batters at Southampton. He said that, over the last 12 months, we haven't given our bowlers the opportunity to win Test matches. We've got 400 a few times, but again that's been helped by a good lower order.

"What he challenged us to do was for the top six to do the bulk of that. He challenged us as a batting unit to take that opportunity and get a big score. He really wanted one to seven to get the bulk of the runs and it happened that way. In terms of first-innings batting, that was as good as you can get."

While Cook's period in charge is likely to be defined by his success as a batsman, and he will have to sustain the improved form shown in Southampton if he is to survive, it might be considered encouraging, from an England perspective, that he is contributing as a captain, even if it is not in the ways deemed "funky" by some observers.

To read many of the reports of recent days, you might be forgiven for thinking England landed a knockout blow against India in Southampton. Impressive though the victory was from an England perspective and valuable though the on-going participation of James Anderson undoubtedly is, it might be remembered that this series is still level at 1-1 with two Tests to play. It might also be remembered that the England side beaten at Lord's contained Anderson.

Yet a sense remains that India may have let their best opportunity slip. With England reeling after Lord's, India allowed them back into the series with an insipid display.

The pitch at Old Trafford might also present the toughest challenge to India's batsman. If one accepts the theory that India's batsmen are uncomfortable against pace and bounce - and the current line-up suggest such a theory is somewhat out of date - then Manchester could present a significant challenge. Certainly the groundsman, Matt Merchant, believes he has produced the quickest and bounciest surface of the summer and, after the driest summer he has experienced, also expects assistance for spinners as the game progresses.

With that in mind, you might conclude that England would be tempted to draft Steven Finn back into their side. Finn remains, at his best, probably the quickest of this squad and is said to be returning to something approaching that after more than a year out of Test cricket.

A return is far from certain, though. After a difficult few months, England will want to ensure Finn's confidence is restored before thrusting him back into the limelight. This recall may be an attempt to reintroduce him into the environment with a view to the longer term.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • rob on August 7, 2014, 9:35 GMT

    It's hard to see how the England dressing room could be a very happy place for the simple reason the players have seen their board sweep aside a number of players and staff while backing Cook to the hilt. I realise they more or less had to do it, but it's an extremely graphic illustration of just how much influence the captain has at the moment. Even though it might not actually be the case, it's not too inconceivable that there might be an element of fear about the way the other players view Cook. A 'cross him and you're history' sort of aura. .. like I said, it might be nothing like that. Then again, it could be.

  • Paul on August 7, 2014, 8:40 GMT

    Well Rajesh_india_1990 Michael Clarke is tactically the best captain followed by McCullum, Matthews, Misbah and then comes Dhoni.

  • steve on August 7, 2014, 8:10 GMT

    cant believe the poms still rate woakes - a very average bowler he's gotta go and make way for stevie finn... far, far more of a threat - woakes is a typical indian seamer....

  • Jason on August 7, 2014, 7:06 GMT

    @Rajesh_india_199, well that's that captains, but I think you have the order wrong, Clarke is unarguably the best captain in International cricket at the moment, Possibly with Matthews next, then Amla, the rest are very much of a muchness.

  • Rajesh on August 7, 2014, 6:52 GMT

    Best captains in the world at present 1.MS Dhoni 2.Brendon Mccullum 3.Amla 4.Cook 5.Dinesh Ramdin 6.Misbah 7.Michael clarke 8.Mathews 9.Musfiqur rahim

  • James on August 6, 2014, 16:34 GMT

    @Potatis: Same here. If there is any English bowler who can wreck havoc amongst the Aussies over the next few years, it's Finn. He has a knack of picking up wickets.

    I'm also worried about their younger brigade. Root is going to be a thorn is our sides for years. Maybe Butler too, not yet convinced by Ballance yet though, even though he has done well. They also have many youngsters on their country scene as well, so we have our work cut out i reckon.

  • James on August 6, 2014, 16:28 GMT

    @Landl47: There is no perfect captain and no perfect record. I agree that a good team affects RESULTS, but not necessarily captaincy. I think good captaincy greatly improves the chance of winning, but it's not a given and therefore losing doesn't necessarily mean you are a bad captain, or vice verca! It's the manner with which you lose or win, and why you are losing/winning that is important.

    For example, Michael Clarke.It is only recent results that have made the rest of the world look at him, but he has always been a good tactician and his personal performances have been good through out his tenure. When Australia got bowled out for 47, Clarke had made 151 in the first innings, but the team lost. When Australia lost to SA at home, Clarke scored two back to back double.

    So even while losing, he was still being a good captain by example and inspiration. Cook hasn't done any of these sorts of things.

  • Dummy4 on August 6, 2014, 16:14 GMT

    Xtrafalgarx you and others are wont to compare other captains from the past but nobody includes G Smith who capatained more tests than anyone and guided his team to the number 1 test ranking. He surely would rate 3/3.

  • Dummy4 on August 6, 2014, 14:29 GMT

    One has to be an eternal gambler to predict anything in this series, since both teams were competing as to which one could be a better set of roller-coaster riders.

    Fans of both the teams seem to be easily swayed by results. They can switch from pillorying to dishing out plaudits with change in fortune in just one test; yes, just in ONE test!

    I think, we have to wait a bit more for the final verdict on Cook's captaincy skills. I would say the same thing about Dhoni too as a test captain (Some even say that he's there since he is the captain, not entirely incorrectly). However, as of now, Cook is running quite a bit ahead of Dhoni in getting acceptability as a good test captain.

    One big thing goes for Cook as against Dhoni; Cook is a natural for tests; Dhoni is not!

  • John on August 6, 2014, 13:03 GMT

    There was nothing wrong with Cook's tactics in the last test. He confined his seamers to shorter spells, used Moeen more, got runs himself and got good performances out of his key players. It helped that England won the toss and were on top throughout the game.

    @xtrafalgarx: That's all fine, but the most important thing is that you have to have a good side. All the captains you mention (Border, Ponting, Clarke, Vaughan) had periods when they lost. Border in his early days had a weak side and couldn't win. Ponting was the reverse- he inherited a great side, but when the best players retired his record became dismal. Clarke lost 7 and drew 2 tests against India and England before MJ rediscovered his mojo and suddenly Clarke's a good captain. Vaughan went up and down as his best players came and went.

    Cook's not a great captain tactically, but he's won in India and beaten Australia 3-0 (almost 4-0). England's new players have played well for him. His legacy is yet to be determined.

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