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