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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

Why Cook's right for England

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

Ed Smith

April 3, 2013

Comments: 31 | Text size: A | A

Alastair Cook was left frustrated by the weather, New Zealand v England, 2nd Test, Wellington, 5th day, March 18, 2013
Cook: not a "natural" leader, and that's perfectly fine © PA Photos
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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

RSS Feeds: Ed Smith

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Shan156 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.

Posted by liz1558 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.

Posted by Shan156 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.

Posted by Shan156 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.

Posted by liz1558 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.

Posted by liz1558 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.

Posted by Selassie-I 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.

Posted by Trickstar 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.

Posted by Shan156 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.

Posted by shillingsworth 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.

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 21:09 GMT)

Talent to performance ratio...surely Paul Collingwood is top of that list (or atleast makes the top 3 with Cook and Steele)? England still haven't found a replacement for him in any form of cricket...

Posted by featurewriter on (April 3, 2013, 21:08 GMT)

History will record Alistair Cook as England's greatest captain and greatest batsman. As an Australian, I have long admired the way he goes about his game. I remember watching him play a tour match against Australia as a teenager and thinking, "Here's a kid who will go on to have a very big international career." I think anyone who witnessed Cook's batting around that period would have made the same conclusion - much like most people would make the same conclusion now that he will go on to become one of the giants of our sport.

Posted by johnnynield on (April 3, 2013, 19:46 GMT)

What you have to remember about Cook is that he constantly exceeds expectations. A while ago he "couldn't score big hundreds", he "can't play spin", he "isn't a one-day player", he's "not a natural captain", etc.

What he is, is the most adaptable player I have seen. Witness his progress in the one day game and the effect on his test batting, i.e. hitting sixes in India before 50 runs were on the board.These weren't the shots of someone with 100 against his name, but of someone wanting to dictate the game on his own terms.

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 19:32 GMT)

@Nutcutlet, 10:58AM: you mentioned Worrell and I agree 500%, it's not called Frank Worrell trophy for nothing. He was a great captain and batsman but also a true gentleman. Two memories: (1) FW in his later years (as Capt) scoring 74 against Eng, in 1963 I think, by a superb display of late-cutting when his side were in trouble, a real captain's innings (2) around 2002 when Lara couldn't keep his team's egos in check, Jamaican Daily Gleaner opined "Frank Worrell would never have tolerated this", and backed it up with facts. I'm an Eng fan and if Cookie is half the man/captain Worrell was, I'll be well pleased. Cook's already proved he's a v good player, and he's only 28 as others have noted so give him time.

And yes, Sobers was the greatest player who ever lived, but not a good captain, too egotistical.

Posted by JG2704 on (April 3, 2013, 19:32 GMT)

@liz1558 on (April 3, 2013, 10:38 GMT) Not sure either but if you come on these threads often enough you'll find plenty of regulars who are still that despite the stats you just put across.

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 19:10 GMT)

Cook will be an OK captian of England is the way that Strauss was an OK captain of England. Solid but unremarkable and not a patch on Hussian or Vaughan when they were at their height. What Ed underestimates is the prevailing influence that Andy Flower has in the England team, its selection, tactics and general attitude. It is Andy Flower's England team not Strauss's and certainly not Cook's and Flower's influence is profoundly conservative and inflexible. Tactical howlers continue to be made whether in the UAE, at Leeds against the South Africans or the first test against India. Until England are more tactically flexible, pick 5 bowlers on flat pitches and are more aggressive in the field they will remain a good team rather than become a great one. The rigid and stereotyped tactics need to end otherwise this team will never reach its potential.

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 15:22 GMT)

I think, personally, I see myself being a fan again, of wondering how a said bowler can make the ball swing/spin/seam that much and how a said batsman can actually counter that and time the ball.. To me, each ball is a contest and whether it is the bowler who wins that particular contest or the batsman moves down from whether the ball was played the way the batsman intended it to play or if he did not. That is the fundamental aspect of the sport that appeals to me and that is how I rate both batsmen and bowlers.. I just think cricket stats always need to be taken with a pinch of salt because a batsman may have a poor average because he played poorly or also because the opposition was performing better than they ever did. For example, Sachin might average 50 against Australia in a series where the bowlers were poor and he was ordinary but he will also average the same when the bowlers are in prime form but also he was in God mode. There is no way to tell juz based on stats.

Posted by HatsforBats on (April 3, 2013, 12:53 GMT)

@ jmcilhinney, with Cook having been anointed FEC seemingly from day one, was there ever any other logical choice? I had my doubts whether Cook would make a good tactical captain (no doubts whatsoever regarding man management and leading by example), but I have been pleasantly suprised so far. Admittedly his background influences (Flower& Strauss) would indicate he would take the safest route, but he has shown (not necessarily in NZ but particularly in his odi captaincy) a willingness to attack. The problem with conservative captaincy is that it relies too much on the execution of set plans and is thereby a win for the think tank off the field and the bowlers on the field, rather than through any individual input from the captain. When the opposition are 2/300 conservatism gets you no where.

Posted by liz1558 on (April 3, 2013, 12:48 GMT)

@py0alb - also worth getting straight that Kane is hardly an accomplished spinner. Otherwise completely agree with your assessment.

Posted by Sir.Ivor on (April 3, 2013, 12:24 GMT)

Alistair Cook was impressive as a batsman on his debut against India when he scored a 100. He may not have advanced with scoring runs by the hundreds all his career but has scored big runs when most needed. Like in the thrashing of Australia in the Ashes the last time he almost single handedly delivered the hitherto perceived impossible achievement. Of beating India in India as much with his batting as with his brand of captaincy. Apart from his undoubted cricketing skills, he has the personality of a captain. Where he commands everyone's respect. He may not be a Brearley or a Close in astuteness,but has the man management skills of managing superstars like Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Swann and bring out the best from such egoists.And he could well be an all time batting great in the years ahead. He is just in the late 20s and I see no reason why he cannot scale the summit set by Sachin Tendulkar. Critics have a habit of pulling down such players just because they have to criticise.

Posted by Arpra on (April 3, 2013, 12:18 GMT)

Ed Smith, awesome again!

Posted by Nutcutlet on (April 3, 2013, 10:58 GMT)

I'm flying a kite here, so I'd be interested in any views & opinions that can test/contradict my contention, which is: the greater the ego, the less likely the captain is to be consistently successful - or in Ed's words - the talented adventurous tactician /the bold, intuitive original is likely to have a testosterone-inflated opinion of himself as a performer, which, in his head at least, must inevitably make him an outstanding captain. Now some names that come to mind in support of this: in the bold, adventurous category: Botham, Dexter, Boycott (briefly, mercifully), even Sobers. In the other camp: Worrell (my all-time top captain, btw), Brearley, Strauss, RB Simpson, even Biff appears to have a proportionately-sized ego for a successful capt. In Pakistani terms, Misbah before Afridi, every time. Although working with a developing WIndies side, Darren Sammy appears to me to becoming a sane & nurturing capt. And Cook? I see him as Strauss-like at the moment, but these are early days.

Posted by py0alb on (April 3, 2013, 10:46 GMT)

Lets set this straight once and for all: Ian Bell is NOT an accomplished player of spin. He averages 23 agaisnt spin bowlers on turning pitches, comfortably the lowest of the english top 6.

Great player of pace, and beautiful to watch against a mediocre bowling attack. But against a half decent spinner? Utterly clueless.

Posted by liz1558 on (April 3, 2013, 10:38 GMT)

Not convinced that England won in India because of Indian hubris; the word is massively overused these days, on a par with businesses with 'solutions' in their title. It seems everyone who fails fails because of hubris. How can a side that has been hammered 4-0, 4-0 in both its previous away series, losing its number 1 tag along the way, possibly be hubristic? What would it have to be hubristic about? Wounded, desperate and determined to do anything that restored confidence, maybe, but surging with arrogance? England beat a team that was still trying to find its feet again by getting back to a home-advantage basics. England were the right team in the right place at the right time. It won't happen again for another 30 years.

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 9:57 GMT)

No doubt Cook is the best option for England but somehow cant see him as a man capable of motivating a side or bringing them together.

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 9:45 GMT)

The last sentence alone is a classic!

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 9:37 GMT)

On the subject of making the most of your talent, Dermot Reeve always struck me as someone who got a quart of good cricket out of every pint of ability he possessed.

Posted by adibow119 on (April 3, 2013, 5:23 GMT)

Great article, one small point though, Williamson was in the middle of an over when day 5 began, because he dismissed Finn at the end of the previous day. Although I don't know if Williamson continued to bowl or not when he completed that over the next morning.

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 4:21 GMT)

Well Cook is a genius no doubt. The question is can he survive the Saffer's next tour of England. Strauss and his predecessors couldn't.

Posted by   on (April 3, 2013, 3:51 GMT)

Truly admirable penning dear writer. God bless your writing.

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