April 3, 2013

Why Cook's right for England

Or: the merits of long-term character over short-term flashiness

Alastair Cook took on the job of England Test captain with a reputation as a man unlikely to spring many surprises. In fact, he has produced two shocks already: a series win over India, coming back from 0-1 down, and then a scramble to avoid series defeat against eighth-placed New Zealand.

Captaincy being what it is - a convenient mechanism for pundits to shoehorn their general opinions of a team into a judgement of a single human being, as though the captain actually is the team - Cook has already experienced an accelerated cycle of ups and downs. Lauded in India, he was immediately widely criticised for his tactics in New Zealand.

Both judgements were hasty and incomplete. India first. England did superbly to win the series. But it was, in fact, a moment of hubris that let them back into the series. India prepared an ultra-turning pitch for the second Test, in Mumbai, mistakenly believing they were attacking England's weakness. In fact, the decision empowered Monty Panesar, who helped swing the series. On flat pitches, as we later saw in New Zealand, Panesar would have been unlikely to challenge the Indian batsmen. If India hadn't got cute with their pitch preparation, England would have struggled.

Then, in New Zealand, though Cook clearly made some mistakes, I saw nothing to challenge my initial view that Cook possesses the tools to become a very considerable England captain. In fact, after one winter in the job, I think it is more likely than ever that Cook will prove to be the right man for the job. If the England management takes a single lesson from the tour, it should be to do everything possible to provide Cook with as much support as possible. Here are three reasons why England should feel optimistic about backing Cook:

A huge question mark about all captains is how office will affect their individual performance. A captain has a short shelf-life if he doesn't produce his fair share of runs and wickets (invoking the example of Mike Brearley does not buy much time in the modern game). Cook's form, if you take the whole winter as a whole, has been spectacular. Seven matches, four hundreds, all of them scored in critical situations.

Ah, but we always knew he could bat. Can he set a field? Many successful captains have been widely regarded as tactically unremarkable. Allan Border was never talked about as a captain who set innovative, surprising fields. He relied on leading by example through his personal resilience and tenacity. It worked. Andrew Strauss led England to two Ashes victories, throughout which time a standard view in the media was that he was "tactically naïve". I challenge anyone to reach 35 years old as a professional sportsman and remain "naïve". No, the word is "cautious", or, if you're feeling more generous, "conventional".

The crucial point here is that you never get everything with one captain. Imagine having to choose between two leaders. The first is a talented, adventurous tactician who is personally unreliable and a flaky performer. The second is a strong, reliable player and a courageous person but a cautious and unsurprising tactician. Give both captains 50 matches in charge with the full support of the management. I know where my money lies about who will achieve the better results.

I asked Geoff Boycott if he could remember an England batsman who had a more admirable talent-to-performance ratio. Boycott had to go back to David Steele before he could think of someone who had squeezed more from his ability

The media generally overrates captains who are exciting and interesting to watch. That is partly because such captains provide more talking points, hence making the media's job easier. Alpha-male captains also receive disproportionate praise. Pundits are quick to credit the work of "natural captains" - by which they usually mean people with gladiatorial body language - even though a moment's reflection reveals that the whole concept of a natural captain is undermined by the extraordinary diversity of characters who have become successful captains.

We saw the "alpha male/pro-adventure" bias at work in the reaction to Brendon McCullum's captaincy. The experts loved him because he was bold, intuitive and original. And I would generally agree. But a bandwagon effect emerged in which everything McCullum tried was greeted with gasps of admiration, while many tactics Cook used were written off without first considering whether it was the fault of the tactic or simply the fault of the execution by the bowler.

Let me give two examples to balance the ledger. On the last morning of the final Test, in Auckland, McCullum, searching for a victory, opened the bowling with the part-time offspin of Kane Williamson rather than his best bowler, Trent Boult. The batsmen at the crease were Ian Bell and Joe Root, both accomplished players of spin. By that point in the series, however, it had already been decided that McCullum was "a brilliant tactician", so the mistake slipped by mostly without criticism.

A second example came in the over before the second-last one of the match. After the fourth ball, McCullum seemed undecided about whether to bring up the field or leave it out. It seemed to me that everyone in the New Zealand team had an opinion and McCullum was finding it difficult to navigate events. Finally, watch again the last over of the match. Many arms were waving around in the field, not all of them belonging to McCullum. Had it been Cook, this would have been taken as evidence that he was insufficiently "in charge".

My point, far from attacking McCullum, is two-fold. First, the incredibly challenging role of captaincy demands constant decision-making, not just "natural leadership". Secondly, any captain can be easily criticised if you are minded to search for mistakes.

We already know enough about Cook to be sure he is an exceptionally balanced and accomplished young man. At the age of 28, he has more hundreds than any other Englishman. More revealingly, he has batted with more prolonged calmness and self-awareness than any English player I have seen. In New Zealand, I asked Geoff Boycott if he could remember an England batsman who had a more admirable talent-to-performance ratio. Boycott had to go back to David Steele before he could think of someone who had squeezed more from his ability, and Cook, of course, has far more ability to squeeze.

In making predictions, we should be guided by past achievements. Cook has a proven record of self-improvement. After one winter of varied, difficult Test cricket, there is no evidence to overthrow the presumption that Cook the captain will follow a similar path to Cook the batsman. Put differently, English cricket should back long-term character not short-term flashiness.

****

A favourite theme of this column is the tension, in both sport and life, between rationality and intuitive judgement. There is no doubt about the orientation of Trouble With the Curve, Clint Eastwood's new film about baseball. It is a manifesto for homespun wisdom, experience and intuition, and a thinly veiled attack on data, innovation and novelty.

Eastwood's film is the inverse Moneyball. Michael Lewis' story was full of liberal optimism, how the scientific method could shine a light on sporting success. It lampooned the faux-wisdom of old baseball scouts, the crusty old men in baseball jackets with their arch-conservatism and imperviousness to the evidence. Now, with Trouble With the Curve, we have the conservative rejoinder. These flash guys with laptops: phonies, charlatans, lightweights. The old men in the stands: sages, gurus, keepers of the flame.

You do not have to take sides to enjoy both interpretations of sport. Indeed, perhaps not taking sides ideologically is a prerequisite for a full enjoyment of sport. Five years ago I wrote this in my book What Sport Tells Us About Life:

We are what we want to see when we watch sport. The angry fan finds tribal belonging; the pessimist sees steady decline and fall; the optimist hails progress in each innovation; the sympathetic soul feels every blow and disappointment; the rationalist wonders how the haze of illogical thinking endures.

What I failed to point out in that paragraph is that we all, to some degree, take on each of those perspectives within one lifetime. One individual sports fan can be all of those people, sometimes simultaneously.

Sport provides us with a never-ending conversation about the nature of experience. Not only do we constantly change our minds, we never reach a final judgement. We are right not to.

Ed Smith's book, Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune, is out in paperback in April 2013. He tweets here

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