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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shanmugam on April 4, 2013, 20:49 GMT

    @liz1558, if that is the case, except SA, no other team is good. England is the best of the rest. By no means are they a great side but they are a good side. The result in NZ was unexpected but it is also true that NZ played really well. You got to give credit to the opposition sometimes. The same way SA was outplayed by Aus. (who were smashed 0-4 in India) in the first two tests of a series when they were expected to easily win. They proved why they are the best now by winning the third one, and with that the series, easily but it is also true that they were dominated in the first two tests.

  • David on April 4, 2013, 20:35 GMT

    @Shan156 - not really. SA are clearly an outstanding side and have been for a few years now. In that regard they are capable of beating anyone anywhere. England, on the other hand, are vulnerable in ways that SA aren't. This is especially true of their fast bowling attack - all averaging around 30 - they're good but not great, and because of that they will occasionally be exposed. As they were by SA and NZ. When using the formula, it is useful for a side that is capable of surprising but isn't genuinely great. It could be applied to Pakistan's win over England in the UAE - an average side, but good in the right conditions. It is merely a way of saying that England are an average side at the moment. And this was amply demonstrated in NZ. England haven't produced a great fast bowler since the 70s, and until they do, they will never be more than pretty good. Snow, WIllis, Botham...those were the days. The current side? In the right place and the right time, they're pretty good.

  • Shanmugam on April 4, 2013, 18:59 GMT

    @Selassie-I, hard to beat Sachin's records. Cook has to keep up this form and fitness for another 12 years to achieve that and we have to accept that he will have a bad run or two if he plays for that long. One thing about Sachin - he has been remarkably consistent for 22 years of international cricket in that he never had more than a year (2005-2006, was it? and even that was due to the tennis elbow) of barren run. Only the last 2 years have been poor and I think he will retire after the SA series. Assuming he finishes with 16k runs, Cook needs 8.7k more. He will have to play remarkably well for another 10-12 years to get there. Same with centuries, Cook needs 27 more to equal Sachin assuming SRT does not get a ton or two in SA. One thing is for sure, Cook will finish as the most prolific England batsman of all time. He will hold several Eng. records that will be hard to break.

  • Shanmugam on April 4, 2013, 17:14 GMT

    Well said @Trickstar. One could apply @liz1558 theory of right team, right place, right time to anyone then, even SA's win in Eng. last year or Ind's win in Eng in 2007, or any series for that matter. Perhaps @liz1558 is an Aussie or Indian fan who still has not come to terms with the fact that Eng. beat India both home and away and Aus. were the first team to lose 0-4 to India.

  • David on April 4, 2013, 15:36 GMT

    As long as England's fast bowlers relocate the right stuff, then he should have an easy job. The fast bowling attack in NZ looked worryingly toothless, and if they don'r recover, then he will have a very tough job. England still haven't levelled out after becoming number 1. The trend, in spite of the India blip, has been downward since then. England will need to win 7/8 of their next 12 Tests; if they do, that will sort things out.

  • David on April 4, 2013, 15:15 GMT

    @Trickstar - I think you're overlooking a few things: England's next tour of India will be in 2016/17 not next week; a lot of our key players - Pietersen, Anderson, Swann, Panesar, Trott, may not be around or past their best; and England have never won consecutive series in India. England have won 4 out of 13 full series in India in 80 years, so maybe it won't happen for another 20 years rather than 30. Agreed, England won because they were the better team, but they weren't that much better. This much was clear in the tour of NZ, where the ineffectiveness of the exact same players (minus Swann) puts the victory over India into context: right place, right team, right time. QED.

  • Rayner on April 4, 2013, 11:14 GMT

    Cook rises to EVERY challenge that he has come accross; remember that weakness just outside the top of off, well he seemed to sort that mid-series and then go on to dominate in Australia, bating against spin in the UAE(although he did nearly get a ton in that series) he went to India and was our best batsman, in fact it took bad umpirring to get him out twice without gettign 3 figures on the board in the final test, when he was called a "plodder" by Athers and widely claimed that he couldn't bat a one day innings, and has continued, if not imporved, his form with captaincy.

    He certainly is the right man for the job and will most likley beat all English batting records and quite a few international ones, realistically, he's the only challenger to SRTs big records (100s and test runs) at the moment, if he goes on to bat till Sachin's age at his current runs per year then he'll get that too.

  • paul on April 4, 2013, 2:32 GMT

    @ liz1558 I'm also not convinced England won because of Indian hubris, they won because they are a better side, simple. England played the Indian spinners better than the Indians played the English spinners, also the English seam attack made much better use of reverse swing than the Indian equivalents. As for the won't happen again for anther 30 years and right team right time comment, absolute rubbish, which sounds more like wishful thinking and tbh I'd put money on England beating them again if they played again next week. Apart from a couple of new batsmen nothing much has changed about team India, obviously apart from recently playing a weaker team, one with no spinners of the quality of the England duo. Lets be right about it though, the recent series between India and Australia Indians was the perfect example of right team in the right place at the right time.

  • Shanmugam on April 4, 2013, 0:19 GMT

    Cook is actually still an under-rated batsman, IMO. People refer to his 2010-2011 Ashes exploits but critics are quick to point out that it was made against a not-so-great Aussie attack. These critics conveniently forget the fighting hundred he made against an attack including McGrath and Warne at Perth in 2006-2007. In fact, I think he is one among few modern day England batsmen to score a ton at Perth. He had a weakness outside his off-stump and this was exploited remorselessly by Aamer and Asif in the 2010 summer series but he worked on it and replied in style with another fighting hundred at the Oval. That innings, I believe, changed his career totally. It is hard to believe now but people were actually saying that he should be axed before that Oval test.

  • Cricinfouser on April 3, 2013, 22:42 GMT

    @Garikai Dzoma - South Africa's next tour of England won't be until 2017. I'd say that was fairly low on Cook's list of priorities at the moment.