England news August 30, 2012

Cook a man of substance and steel

The path for Alastair Cook to become England's Test captain has been laid out from early in his career, but that does not make the challenge any less demanding

It was probably fitting that Alastair Cook did not take the spot light even in the moment that he was unveiled as England's new Test captain. No, instead of being allowed to bask in the success of another step in a remarkable career, Cook was happy to allow Andrew Strauss to say goodbye in typically decent and self-effacing style and leave questions about Kevin Pietersen as he might balls outside his off stump.

Cook is, in many ways, an unremarkable cricketer. He can talk without you recalling a word, score centuries without you remembering a stroke and has achieved great feats of run-scoring without ever being accepted as a great. In an age of sporting prima-donnas he is refreshingly short on style and reassuringly full of substance.

He has been destined to assume the Test captaincy for years. A former England Under-19 captain, he was appointed Test vice-captain ahead of the West Indies tour of 2009 and, a year later, led in a Test for the first time when he stood in for the rested Strauss on England's tour of Bangladesh. He was been England's ODI captain for 18 months. He was not only the obvious choice, he was the only choice.

But a long apprenticeship does not necessarily assure a successful transition. Just ask Gordon Brown.

Cook is not an overwhelmingly natural captain. Like his predecessor, Cook is no orator and no tactical genius. But such skills are often over-rated. They are for captains in comics and clichés. When your side is following-on, you do not want a speech in the dressing room: you want a man who will see off the new ball and bat all day. Cook will be that sort of captain. Like Strauss, he is reliable, calm and strong. He is respected by his team as a player and liked by them as a man. He will lead through example and by instilling a unity of purpose. He is a continuity captain. This is not a new era, it is the continuation of an old one.

That is no bad thing. Despite recent setbacks, England have enjoyed unprecedented success over the last few years and, right now, they do not need more uncertainty. And while Cook may want to improve his somewhat edgy relationship with the media - as Duncan Fletcher's experiences showed, it will hurt eventually - he knows the demands of the job he has accepted and, unlike the appointments of Strauss, Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, has no natural contender for the role. The dressing room is right behind him.

Besides, it would be easy to exaggerate the importance of the captain in this England set-up. It is the coach, Andy Flower, who runs the England team. Tellingly, while Flower is part of the selection process, Strauss was not. Not until the morning of the game, anyway.

Cook inherits a team at a crossroads. While England have recently lost their No. 1 ranking in all formats of the game and, with one top-order player having retired and another having alienated himself from the team, could be at the start of a partial rebuilding process

Cook inherits a team at a crossroads. While England have recently lost their No.1 ranking in all formats of the game and, with one top-order player having retired and another having alienated himself from the team, could be at the start of a partial rebuilding process. There are doubts, too, about Graeme Swann's fitness - when a 33-year-old with a history of elbow problems requires resting just half-a-dozen games after his last break the alarm bells ring - and Stuart Broad's form. Cook will also have to help put together a new slip cordon. England's catching - or rather their lack of it - has been a major weakness of late.

The most urgent requirement is to find a new opener. In the long-term Joe Root may be the best option though, aged 21 and with just four first-class centuries to his name, it is asking a great deal of him to continue his development at the highest level. In the shorter-term, 31-year-old Michael Carberry and 29-year-old Nick Compton might be considered. The former has not always looked at his best against spin and the latter has been batting at No.3 in recent times, but anyone with Compton's record - he averages 97.84 for Somerset in first-class cricket this season - surely has the technique and temperament required. Varun Chopra might also be an option.

But England will also be tempted to promote from within. Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell and James Taylor could all make a case for opening alongside Cook in India though in the cases of Trott and Bell, such a ploy might only move a problem rather than solve it.

While Jonny Bairstow may have done enough to warrant a prolonged run in the No. 6 position, the absence of Pietersen leaves England exposed in the middle-order. While nurturing one or, at a push, two new batsmen into the top order might be acceptable, there is now a possibility that Bairstow will be one of three new faces in the top six. The Pietersen issue continues to hurt the individual and the team, but it is not really Cook's issue to resolve. Pietersen's biggest impediment to a return is Flower. And it is a mighty impediment.

But if history has taught us anything, it is never to write off Cook. From the moment he scored a century on Test debut as a 21-year-old he has defied his doubters. A testing period in 2010, when it appeared that fatal flaws in his technique had been exposed, gave way to a prolific Ashes success where he scored three centuries. He responded to the ODI captaincy by leading his side to the top of the rankings and reinventing himself as a highly effective limited-overs opener. Behind the somewhat bland façade, Cook has substance and steel.

He will need those qualities over the next couple of years. He will be, barring injury or unforeseen circumstance, the man leading England against India home and away, against Australia home and away and in the Champions Trophy and the World Cup. It is, at once, a daunting and exciting schedule and how Cook navigates those challenges will surely define his legacy. It may be worth noting that, aged 27 and experienced in many of the ups and downs that make a career, he has never suffered long-term failure.

Of all the forthcoming challenges, though, Cook could be forgiven for looking at the Future Tours Programme and circling December 2015 with particular trepidation. That is, after all, when England next play a Test series against South Africa. Before the recent series between the two teams, Graeme Smith was described as a "slayer" of England captains, having been partially responsible by dint of his batting and his team's success in pushing Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan into quitting the job. Now, with Strauss following a similar route, he must be considered a serial killer.

There is no perfect time to inherit the captaincy. It is only natural that captains assume command in the aftermath of humbling defeats or horrid fall-outs - after all, why would something end if it was working well? - and, while Cook may need to wipe some blood off the tracks, he does at least have the opportunity to build a new team without any immediate worries about his own form or the stability of the England set-up. That is a luxury many of his predecessors would have loved.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on August 31, 2012, 13:36 GMT

    @peter56 on (August 31 2012, 00:25 AM GMT) - Do you or any others think that Strauss resigned over the KP issue? I thought that after the SA series , esp after the decline personal form he showed . I'm not sure he did open a campaign against Strauss , just that some of the texts we think we know about were about Strauss. I might be on my own here but I see Strauss as a man who is far more likely to be forgiving than anyone else and to me his departure will not make it any easier for KP to get back in the side. We've already heard of certain players who don't like KP being around for whatever reason and who knows where everyone else stands. If senior players are still not happy with KP then I don't see KP getting in just because Flower resigns. It seems that Eng are a unit and players feelings count for much. The only way I see KP returning is if he patches things up with everyone in that side and that means being brave enough to approach the players himself.

  • peter on August 31, 2012, 11:22 GMT

    MattyP1979 " Cook is a fantastic opening batsman. He does seem a bit of a wimp to me though" How therefore do you possibly expect Cook to be able to keep the Pietersen ego in check when the far tougher Strauss finally gave up and fell on his sword? If Pietersen is ever going to be re integrated into the team then it would have to happen during a relatively low key series maybe against New Zealand ,certainly not in the star crazed hysteria that would greet him in India. He is idolised over there AND HE KNOWS IT. its not hard to imagine the deafening adulation he would receive every time that he walked to the wicket . It would be a totally impossible situation for the rest of the team.(and it would totally overwhelm Cook) who would be seen as little more than bit part players in the conquering hero's return to the land that loves him (the blanket Indian support for KP across all blogs has been scary)it cant happen before NZ.

  • Dummy4 on August 31, 2012, 3:06 GMT

    It will be interesting to see if he will remain captain after they tour the subcontinent. all the best to him though first English captain of an English teams after long period. i am not sure if i agree with everything in the article but he is a decent cricketer with current line up he would be my second choice, i know in the recent past we have not had bowling captains but Anderson who is the main leader of the team should be given a chance. I am not a fan of any english player but realistically speaking Anderson deserves it more.

  • Neil on August 31, 2012, 1:38 GMT

    I like Cook. So not full of himself and a very unflappable temperament. On the face of it, perfectly suited to being England captain. My concern, remembering that he will really be targeted by opposing fast bowlers now, is that his technique is perhaps not quite as sound as his numbers suggest. After a good 1st innings in this recent series, South Africa really nailed him. His best innings have been on pretty good tracks against attacks with big problems e.g. Australia 2010, India 2011. Not sure that he could do a Steve Waugh and bat all day on a difficult track or against a really hostile attack that kept hammering away at his obvious weakness, the slightly away moving ball just on or outside off stump. If good attacks can sustain that probing line/length then I think he could have some difficulty. That said, sometimes the hour maketh the man. Like Steve Waugh, I think he has a great attitude, work ethic and temperament if not Steve's belligerance in the face of adversity. We'll see.

  • John on August 31, 2012, 1:08 GMT

    I rate Cook as one of the best opening bats in the last decade or so, not quite in the league of Matty Hayden, but getting there. He's good on all surfaces and against spin & pace. The 1st century he made against Oz was a masterclass in how to play Warney; he didn't attack like Lara, but he used rock-solid defence combined with selective attacking strokes. It was a 'pleasure' to watch. Unlike the very lucky Mr. Strauss, he has not inherited a side on the ascendancy, but one that is most definitely on the downhill slide. Whilst he has the makings of a good captain, his team will be a 'ball & chain' that will become a burden the longer his career goes on. I expect his batting will begin to suffer the consequences of repeated thumpings, 1st by IND in all formats; they'll go OK vs NZ, but it won't be a one-sided contest; culminating in a vicious mauling by the resurgent OZ in the Ashes next year (very confident AUS 3 nil in that one). You're gonna need thick skin, Cookie!!!!

  • John on August 31, 2012, 0:56 GMT

    @Hammond, So you're only worried about the ODI format, eh. The Poms test form has been atrocious, you know it, I know it, everyone knows it. Cook seems to be struggling atm, SA are continuing the 'golden run' and simply destroying your precious little dears. They are very sad remnants of the very good side that beast Oz 3-1, but the game moves on, as do teams. Unfortunately for ENG, the only movement thay've made recently has been sliding down the rankings, and this WILL continue in IND. Not only will they lose the test series by at least 2 nil, they'll cop the Mother Of All Floggings in the ODI format, IND are the current Cup holders, after all - s'pose you'll always have the T20, Hammond, but IND will dish up more of the same. Best concentrate on that LONG OVERDUE rebuilding process. Here's a tip, I know it'll be a totally alien concept for the ECB, but concentrate on home-grown talent, don't go for more poaching - I realise the cupboards are bare, but press on anyway!!!!

  • peter on August 31, 2012, 0:25 GMT

    As Michael Atherton said Strauss has 'walked the plank' first Kp got rid of Moores now he has got rid of strauss. who had KP been targetting via these texts Strauss and he has hit the bullseye yet again.' I've great faith in the set-up. I've still got a lot of desire there' strauss quote 20/8. then the pressure was put on strauss to talk to KP. As a man of honour it would not be hard to imagine Strauss the victim of an unprecedented attack on his captaincy baulking at having to justify himself to his attacker. In hindsight it was not hard to see that he was not willing to compromise his integrity any further and so he walks away. there will only be one winner here KP ( he set out on a campaign of ridicule against strauss so he is not going to be unhappy that strauss has gone) he has split the Flower strauss axis, and now can see the prospect of a new captain,a new beginning, an amnesty being announced ,everyone is now starting off with a clean slate. will the ECB do that to Strauss

  • peter on August 30, 2012, 23:24 GMT

    So Now as M. Atherton said today Strauss 'has walked the plank' one of the biggest obstacles to the return of KP is gone.in this article you point out that now the biggest obstacle to KP 's return is Andy Flower. Now while nobody thinks that flower is going to quit.are you now turning up the heat on the anti-KP faction in the dressing room? " There are doubts, too, about Graeme Swann's fitness - when a 33-year-old with a history of elbow problems requires resting just half-a-dozen games after his last break the alarm bells ring - and Stuart Broad's form" Bresnan has already been dropped.the implication being You guys ought to be individually worried about your places in the team thereby having the effect of considerably weakening the anti-Kp faction in the dressing room. Kp's number one target in the texts was Strauss and he has hit the bullseye. strike 1 was get rid of Moores and strike 2 was to get rid of Strauss. wait for the amnesty a new captain and the slate wiped clean fo KP

  • Mathew on August 30, 2012, 19:39 GMT

    Cook is a fantastic opening batsman. He does seem a bit of a wimp to me though, and I hope he can grow a pair and find some steel in his leadership style. Yes his first assignment looks tough, however Strauss was always going to struggle in Ind, so his exclusion creates a stronger side on field at least. I want Trott to open with him and Bell up to 3. Kp back in and JB/Prior/Bresnan/Swann/Anderson/Finn/Monty. Broad/Patel as back up's.

  • joel on August 30, 2012, 17:38 GMT

    I agree with the decision to make him captain , but worry it could effect his batting . Hes had a hard time against the South Africans for sure , but the saffers have the best bowing attack in the world right now . Well after watching this series just gone , allthough the 2-0 scoreline did flatter the saffers ! . Cook is a bully against weaker bowling attacks , ie Australia and India . He will become Englands highest run scorer , without doubt .

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