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The Investec Ashes 2013

Is the leadership weighing heavy on Cook?

He has less than 100 runs in four Ashes innings - bringing to mind a number of England captains whose batting suffered when in charge

Rob Smyth

July 29, 2013

Comments: 43 | Text size: A | A

James Pattinson had Alastair Cook caught behind, England v Australia, 1st Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 1st day, July 10, 2013
Alastair Cook has averaged over 60 as captain overall, but he seems to have hit a blip © PA Photos
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For such a habitual success, Alastair Cook knows a fair bit about failure. Low scores are an inescapable fact of life for English openers and Cook has had plenty of leanish spells on his way to making 7607 Test runs and 25 hundreds. He is in one right now, with 83 runs in four Ashes innings. An average of 20.75 is slightly down on the 225 he was averaging after two Tests of the last Ashes.

It would surprise nobody if Cook made a huge score in the next Test at Old Trafford. He had an even worse start to the summit series against India in 2011, with scores of 12, 1, 2 and 5 in the first two Tests. In the next match he hit 294 at Edgbaston.

His Ashes mirabilis in 2010-11 followed the toughest summer of his career. However, the slightly absent-minded nature of a couple of his dismissals against Australia have induced the nagging and persuasive thought that Cook might just be starting to follow the pattern of England captains in the last 20 years: a spectacular start containing some of the best batting of their career - Cook was superhuman in India last year - followed by a slow decline as the incessant and varied demands of leadership take their toll.

Cook's overall average as captain is an outstanding 60.60. His average as full-time captain - since Andrew Strauss' resignation - is 52.60, four above his career average, but in 2013 it is has dropped to 37.69. Perhaps the novelty is wearing off. Or perhaps it is just a common-or-garden lean spell. Cook does things differently to most batsmen, and he will feel a far more relevant precedent is that of his mentor Graham Gooch, the last Englishman to have extended success as a batsman-captain. Gooch's improvement was extraordinary. When he took over in 1989-90, his Test average was 37.71. Over the next four years he averaged 58.72 before resigning the captaincy.

Gooch was an exception, rule-proving or otherwise. For most batsmen, particularly in England in modern times, captaincy has been the grimmest reaper. Its all-consuming nature compromises a batsman's relationship with his best friend: concentration. In A Captain's Diary, Graeme Smith - who has generally dealt extremely well with the twin demands - jokes he would like to lobby the ICC to extend the innings break from 10 to 15 minutes, such is the difficulty for captain-openers to leave the wider concerns at the pavilion gate. "You have so much eating away at you, so much still going on in your head."

For most batsmen, particularly in England in modern times, captaincy has been the grimmest reaper. Its all-consuming nature compromises a batsman's relationship with his best friend: concentration

Perhaps the best example of how the captaincy can affect a batsman came during the Ashes Test at Headingley in 2009. England's build-up on the first day was frenzied. They had to stand outside their hotel for almost an hour in the early hours because of a fire alarm; Matt Prior suffered a back spasm during a game of football, which led to the toss being put back ten minutes; there was an ongoing discussion as to whether Andrew Flintoff would be fit; the masseur, Mark Saxby, was smacked on the head during Australia's cricket practice. All this with the game due to start in less than half an hour. It was chaos, and Andrew Strauss could not focus on the smaller picture when he went out to bat. He should have been out lbw to the first ball of the match, and soon after, edged a loose drive to slip. The seam wasn't the only thing scrambled that morning.

That was an almost absurdly extreme example of how captaincy can impact, but it is always there. In Out Of My Comfort Zone, Steve Waugh wrote that captaincy "seemed to soak my spare time like a sponge". In that sense it is almost an extreme form of sporting parenthood - extreme as you have effectively given birth to decuplets. A captain must look after his ten team-mates, with their myriad concerns.

Then there are the toss, the media demands, the small talk with the mascots, the small talk with the Queen, the politics, the knowledge that your resting face and body language are being scrutinised at every moment, the angle of the man at fine leg. And that's only about 0.1% of the demands. What starts as exciting and novel eventually becomes mundane and trying; it's human nature. Changing your first nappy is one of the most memorable experiences of your life; changing the 2001st nappy is not. Then there is the pressure, the seeds of which are planted the day you take over and which grow over time.

There is a school of thought the middle should be the safest place for a captain: his equivalent of a parent's downtime, or a 22-yard sanctuary in which you can just bat, but it doesn't always work like that. Cook is better at compartmentalising than most, and seems to be a master of clearing extraneous thoughts, but captaincy will challenge that in ways he could not have imagined. In modern sport everything is done to protect the body. It is much more difficult to take care of the mind; to keep it clear and sharp.

That has been a recurring theme of England captains in the last 20 years. Most found the captaincy empowering rather than embattling at first. Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart and Strauss all had their most productive series leading the side in their first series as captain; Nasser Hussain's average of 61.66 in his first full series was the best of his tenure. Even short-lived or stand-in captains such as Kevin Pietersen and Marcus Trescothick scored centuries in their first and second games as captain respectively, while Flintoff batted superbly in India in 2005-06.

Andrew Strauss led England out with three wickets needed to retain the Ashes, Australia v England, 4th Test, Melbourne, 4th day, December 29, 2010
Most recent England captains, Andrew Strauss among them, have had productive times with the bat soon after taking charge, before the job began to take a toll © Getty Images

The exception is Michael Vaughan - but then he had no scope for improvement. When he assumed the captaincy he had scored seven hundreds in his last 12 Tests and had an average of 50.98. Vaughan was never the same player again; in 51 matches as captain he hit nine hundreds and averaged 36.02, a dreadfully unbecoming record for a man with a touch of genius. He resigned in tears, just like Hussain. It is inevitable that most captaincy careers will end in failure, and equally inevitable that most will struggle to maintain their output in the middle.

"At the start of my captaincy, not being able to spend time on my own game was a benefit because it prevented me from being too insular," wrote Atherton in Opening Up. "Initially, also, the added responsibility and pressure were empowering and resulted in better personal performances. Eventually, however, as pressure increased over time, my ability to cope clearly decreased. Now, I needed extra time to put my game in order and the captaincy was a hindrance. I was not the only captain whose game suffered."

His mate Hussain's certainly did. In his second year of captaincy Hussain could barely buy a run - he averaged 13.55 in a 12-Test period - and was increasingly obsessed with the idea that he was not worth his place. One night in Sri Lanka, when he could not sleep, he went to the hotel bar on his own at 1am.

"The barman was just packing up," he wrote in Playing With Fire, "but I managed to persuade to him to hang on, ordered myself a rum and Coke, lit up a fag [even though I don't smoke], and sat there, going through everything." This is what the captaincy came to do a man. A century in the next Test changed Hussain's life: he came to terms with it and had a second wind. Others were not so fortunate.

The problem does seem to afflict England more than most. In the last 20 years, England captains batting in the top six average 39.98 - above only New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and 10 runs behind Australia.

"I always said I would be the only England captain not to go bald, but after days like today, it might not help that," joked Cook after the Trent Bridge Test. England need him to buck the trend of recent history. These are relatively insecure times for a batting line-up that was hitting 500 in its sleep only a couple of years ago. England cannot afford to lose their best batsman.

Rob Smyth is the author of The Spirit of Cricket - What Makes Cricket the Greatest Game on Earth

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Posted by Mac_87 on (July 31, 2013, 8:30 GMT)

Four quiet innings and he can't cope with the captaincy. Seriously? He seemed to cope pretty well in India last year...

Posted by Liquefierrrr on (July 31, 2013, 6:55 GMT)

Anyone who is implying Cook, or Clarke for that matter, are struggling now or aren't as good as they were cracked up to be or suffering now must consider this: You can't maintain an average or aggregate as ludicrously lofty as they both did for 18-24 months.

Even then, both have made a 50 this series and have looked ultimately good, however simply haven't made the huge scores they are both now rightly renowned for.

Cook and Clarke are, and will be forever more, world-class players. They can't hit 100s every test, or even every other test, all of the time. Even the best players go through blips on their otherwise highly impressive radars.

Both will go up again, and when they do go up it'll be right up. As an Aussie I see Cook's relatively lean run thus far as one of the most dangerous aspects of this horrid tour. The giant doth sleep, and even in this state has still looked good. What happens when he wakes?

Clarke's situation is different. His team are horrid thus pressure is high

Posted by bonobo on (July 30, 2013, 22:01 GMT)

I think Cook has never had the most fluent of techniques and there are obvious strategies to be employed to him, this is compensated by an exceptional awareness of his own game and discipline that allows him to play so well within his limitations.....but it does mean he can be affected by form, more than some others players...for example Bell, whose basic game allows him to still play through periods out of form. Cook had some up and down spells, before he was captain, so I would not read too much into it...and if Australia do not keep on top of their game against him, it doesnt take much for him to get back into gear

Posted by S.Jagernath on (July 30, 2013, 19:37 GMT)

I think that Alistair Cook has done a fine job so far.He played a couple of brilliant innings in India,they were truly high class considering how tough the conditions were.I think he needs time & he will balance things well over time.

Posted by   on (July 30, 2013, 14:19 GMT)

@Chris Dayton, my thoughts exactly, the last few years he has scored so heavily, that a few bad innings means he is badly out of form, just shows how high his standards are!

Posted by cric_J on (July 30, 2013, 13:08 GMT)

@king78787 : I beg to differ with you that Cook hasn't had any shocking dismissals recently. Some of his dismissals on the NZ tour and the ones in the 1st inngs at Trent Bridge and the 2nd innings at Lord's were not "shocking" but surely uncharacteristic and rather poor by his own high standards. Also, the Aussie attack is good but it isn't something like SA's and Cook is too classy a player to be consistently troubled by them.

And yeah, even 2 hundreds and 4 fifties in 17 innings is a mediocre stat for any opener and it feels a bit of a let down when that batsman is Alastair Cook !

Mind you, not even for a second am I trying to demean or trash-bash Cook. In fact he is one of my most favourite players of the modern era and I have immense belief in his potential. And it's because he is really THAT good that I am a bit upset with his recent efforts . If he gets a good, solid Cook-like knock at Old Trafford and even if it isn't a 100, I'll actually be one of the first to laud him.

Posted by Vakbar on (July 30, 2013, 12:34 GMT)

Agree with many posters that a couple of bad tests does not a trend make! However, one must accept with Cook that, in England especially, his technique is such that he will always have periods where he goes without a few until he corrects his basic flaws of head going across etc. But he is far too good a player to have captaincy decimate his form.

The peer whom Cook should really look to is Graeme Smith - left handed opening bat who has captained sucessfully and has by and large maintained his form for years.

Posted by afsariqbal on (July 30, 2013, 10:57 GMT)

Just w8t & watch for his 26th century in next match

Posted by 64blip on (July 30, 2013, 8:58 GMT)

Meh, agree with those posters who think this article is premature or just plain unwarranted. He's now got an opening partner who knows all about scoring 'Daddies' so I'm looking forward to the possibility of 300-0 at some point.

Posted by hhillbumper on (July 30, 2013, 8:03 GMT)

He just needs to play straighter and concentrate.He did not look himself in the first 2 tests but he can soon change this.The Aus attack is not that good that he won't sort it out.Everyone can have a blip.Look at Clarke he has not exactly been that good so far.

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 19:47 GMT)

There is all this and then there is M.S. Dhoni. A captain who absorbs all the pressure around all 15 players and still stand tall and firm like Iron Pillar of Delhi. He absorbs pressure with such ease that he voluntarily went bald after winning WC and still grew up hairs while going through team's slump of form and transition Phase. Every other captain and player should look upto him and learn from him what leaders are made of. He always lead from the front while always back him players with such confidence that even players like vinay kumar and Inshant sharma produces match winning overs.

Posted by jb633 on (July 29, 2013, 19:23 GMT)

This author has jumped the gun again. If we are going to speak of trends we at least need to wait for the end of the series. He made runs in India and New Zeland, has had a couple of starts in this series and needs to go now crack on. I have no worries that Cook will come good. He has made runs in the most trying conditions in world cricket (India) and won us the series there.

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 16:56 GMT)

What utter rubbish. It's only four innings since his last test century. Four innings without a hundred is not a lean spell. Ever since scoring 766 in the last ashes, Cook has become such a legend that people start to think he is out of form if he goes a whole test match without passing 50.

Posted by Scrop on (July 29, 2013, 15:39 GMT)

He is one of the great batsmen. No doubt. His Captaincy will be tested when the form of other players in the team slum thats when he will be put to real test. Being able to make a game from no where.

At the moment he has a great squad and all he has to do is just play his role as batsman and do the customary bowling and fielding changes, be present in the team interviews and so on.

Posted by YorkshirePudding on (July 29, 2013, 15:32 GMT)

Please, he scored 3 back to back 100's in india not so long, and then he couldnt do any wrong.

Players go through cycles, where runs are concerned, a batsman will not score 100 every time he walks to the crease. and Cook is just in the bottom of a cycle, which may also have had something to do with having a new opening partner, now Root has a 100 under is belt as opener I think we'll see Cook relax a bit.

Posted by king78787 on (July 29, 2013, 15:19 GMT)

He is going through what is more commonly known as a "rough patch". He is struggling against a pretty good seam attack with the new ball. He has had no shocking dismissal's and seems to be getting more than his fair share of good balls. I believe that a "daddy hundred" is round the corner for Cook. @cricJ, 2 hundred's in his last 17 innings of which includes 4 half centuries and 2 hundred's. No so bad when you put it like that.

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 15:06 GMT)

And the point of this article is what, exactly? Allow me to be blunt, if Cook starts piling on the runs that we know he can pile on, it'll add even further misery to the Australian campaign. The fact England have won two tests thanks to two and a half batsmen (Bell, Root, and Trott with the half) and their bowling quartet speaks volumes. KP hasn't fired yet, and he's injured. Should he be ruled out of the OT test, Taylor comes in fresh off an unbeaten century against the Aussies. The only article this gives hope to are the Australians. If Cook doesn't find form but England still win the series, this article becomes irrelevant. Save this article should Cook fail to deliver for the return series and/or should England scrape through retention. At this moment in time, England need two bad tests to endanger a crushing series victory.

Posted by ThyrSaadam on (July 29, 2013, 14:20 GMT)

I think one of the factors that Cook should be happy about is that there is not much pressure on him to perform, mainly because the team has done well. Its a good thing the team is doing well as a whole , and so that does not magnify his failures. However one bad result as a team, and then the analysis will start...

Posted by cric_J on (July 29, 2013, 13:48 GMT)

Frankly speaking, I personally have been pretty concerned over Cook's recent form and have expressed this on a few other threads as well. He now has only 2 centuries in the last 17 innings.That is pretty poor for any opening batman. It is even poorer if that batsman is Alastair Cook.

My biggest worry is not that he isn't putting up a train of tons but that he hasn't really "LOOKED" like doing that. If I have to point out Cook's bread and butter, it would surely be 1. no lose shots and a rock solid defence 2. patience and grinding down the opposition bowlers. And those are THE 2 aspects that have been missing from a large majority of his last 17 innings.

The carelessness of some of his recent dismissals has been baffling and very hard for me to believe. When KP or Bell get out like that, you could attribute it to lack of seriousness and concentration. But saying that for Cook seems odd.

It won't be a surprise at all if he gets a big one at OT. But it surely will be "Order Restored ".

Posted by Speng on (July 29, 2013, 12:56 GMT)

Silly article. The guy is an opener going up against a pretty decent bowling attack in favorable conditions and Cook's been on a short run (maybe 6 tests) of mediocre form. Basically 3/4 of this article had nothing to do with Cook, instead making references to other captains with no shown relevance at all to Cook's situation other than the most generic.

Posted by salazar555 on (July 29, 2013, 12:53 GMT)

I don't think Cook actually decides much, he is lucky he has a team of experienced players and they basically decide what is happening. Jimmy certainly picks his own fields and Cook basically says where do you want them Jimmy. Plus as far as I know without actually looking at the stats, Cook's batting record while being Captain is pretty good

Posted by Nutcutlet on (July 29, 2013, 12:40 GMT)

Cook's captaincy is a work-in-progress. In these early days of his tenure, he tends to err on the side of caution, play the percentages, be predictable. It doesn't make for excitement (indeed, England's Test side generally has been efficient rather than exciting, even when winning, unless KP takes an attack apart by storm as he did at Mumbai). In the field, Cook tends to do things by committee. It's not always a bad thing as it pays off when making best use of DRS (he, in committee, clearly has something to teach Clarke in this respect). His body language tends to be less assertive than Strauss's was (or Clarke's is). To a large extent a new captain will have imbibed much of his attitude & values from those under whom he's played, so it isn't surprising to see something of Strauss in Cook's approach and there is one area where Cook, like Stauss, is very strong. He is a good manager of his men & the team is together. What, I wonder, would Clarke give to have the same boxes ticked?

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 12:04 GMT)

Although I agree that this might be all a bit of a panic a bit too soon, I would like to commend Rob Smyth on a carefully argued piece. I wonder how all-rounders' different facets hold up if they are asked to increasingly use their more secondary discipline? Do batting all-rounders find it harder if they consistently have to bowl more? Do experienced bowling all-rounders struggle to claim wickets if they have higher expectations placed on them to bat higher or with greater impact? It would be interesting to know if captaincy is like being an all-rounder asked to play a key part. Or even becoming a stand-in wicketkeeper like de Villiers or Dravid.

Posted by Showbags88 on (July 29, 2013, 11:19 GMT)

Cook is obviously a good player but I always said that we bowled way too short to him in Australia 2 years ago. He is a magician off the backfoot but when you pitch it up to him and ask him to drive he isn't quite as good.

We have bowled much better to him this series "so far" (if only we had a decent batting lineup atm). I hope they play Jackson Bird in the next Test as he is the sort of bowler that could trouble Cook due to bowling that fuller length with the ball nipping away (should of played at Lord's as well).

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 10:46 GMT)

A little to early to conclude or ask the question: Is captaincy affecting Cook's batting?

He is a top class player and it would be wise to wait for next two matches, I am sure he will turn things around.

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 10:08 GMT)

Love how Australia were going to "target" Cook- well they have, and it has worked, and they are 2 tests down. Good plan that..

Posted by CutHis_ArminHalf on (July 29, 2013, 9:01 GMT)

Captaincy doesn't effect Cook.

He makes no decisions! He gets all his plans and decisions handed to him.

Posted by jackiethepen on (July 29, 2013, 8:57 GMT)

Articles like this will certainly add to the strain. When Strauss was asked by his fellow Sky commentators what caused the most pressure he had felt as captain, he promptly answered "The media".

The pressure has been taken off Cook by Bell. Fair enough. Let's hope Cook recovers from his nerves. Cook has consistently backed Bell and even promoted him in ODI cricket. That is also the role of a captain. If you back the right guy he will repay at some point.

Cook, like all cricketers, has ups and downs. That is the nature of the game but somehow ignored by the more shrill fans and pundits. Cook's game will revive, captaincy or no captaincy, if the media doesn't make a crisis out of it.

Posted by Paul.Power on (July 29, 2013, 8:52 GMT)

One thing to remember with Cook is that he's actually a much better batsman away from home, averaging nearly 56 away compared with just over 44 in England. So it's no real surprise that his first few months as captain (all in away games) have been more productive than recent months (mostly in home games). It'd probably be best to check in on his "batting as captain" stats again after the Ashes series down under.

Posted by Tom_Bowler on (July 29, 2013, 8:21 GMT)

Probably should have kept this on file until the "slump" has endured six months rather than two games (one of which he got a fifty in). At the moment this is just a silly piece of flapping. Aggers standard, D minus, must do better.

Posted by Mattzo12 on (July 29, 2013, 7:50 GMT)

Cook's had many of these little blips, I'm not worried yet.

Posted by gimme-a-greentop on (July 29, 2013, 7:44 GMT)

I hope this article makes all the Smith critics realise how lucky we have been to have a captain who can seemingly make light of the heavy demands of captaicy and still average around 50, which is excellent for a Test opener. Cook, I believe, is just going through a small bad patch after the heights he has reached recently and will soon be back to grinding the bowlers down. He has too much natural ability and concentration to be out of form for too long. Unless he's facing Vernon Philander on a seaming wicket ;)

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 6:46 GMT)

kim hughes averaged 60 in his first series in charge... in india. and over 60 in is first proper season in charge, against pakistan at home. then the windies got him, like they got Greg Chappell. they got everyone, eventually.

Posted by Metatone on (July 29, 2013, 6:16 GMT)

Good piece Rob.

I think that modern captaincy contains a lot of "sideshow" activities and one would hope Andy Flower is able to persuade the ECB to fork out enough money to lessen that load.

I think it's also the case that opening puts extra pressure on Cook. There's a reason opener is a specialist position - facing the new ball and the fresh bowler is demanding. Few openers have the best average because any dips in form can be amplified by the fact that openers tend to face more good (and great) balls than other batsmen.

Still, I think Cook's technique has shown signs of needing work. He needs to carve out some time with Gooch to fix his slight lean...

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 5:59 GMT)

As a South African, I wonder about the stats of Graeme Smith. He took over captaincy very early on, is an opener, and has an average touching 50. Would his average have been better if he was not captain? He does seem to be a person who thrives under pressure (at least in the test arena).

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 5:51 GMT)

How about non-playing captains? It's a fact that more often than not captaincy affects on-field performance. And players should be left to do what they are best at. Strategies and decisions can be planned by the coaches/managers and communicated on-filed for executions.

Posted by Srini_Chennai on (July 29, 2013, 5:20 GMT)

Maybe, as not all quality players respond well to the captaincy. He might have been under slight pressure as his first Ashes series as captain. Now since England is 2-0 up, we might see a more relaxed Cook in Manchester and might score plenty. But I feel, it is too early to make any conclusion on whether captaincy affects his batting or not. He did play well as a captain in India. Just give him sometime, he'll come good.

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 4:53 GMT)

The series will be sealed at the end of the 3rd test match at Old Trafford and so the pressure (if any at all) will not be there after that. Cook can then just go back to focusing on his batting and pile up some big scores. Apart from RSA, there are not too many good test sides right now in World Cricket and so Cook should be fine.

Posted by MrKricket on (July 29, 2013, 4:35 GMT)

Thinking of the Australians I would guess that AB, Steve Waugh and Michael Clarke improved their averages while Mark Taylor, Ricky Ponting and going way back to Kim Hughes had declining averages as captain. Not sure about Greg Chappell - he started strongly with a century in each innings but was a bit inconsistent in his later career.

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 3:34 GMT)

Cook is fine for now, the SA team will not be coming to England in a while. I doubt he will outlive a tour by SA however. A lot of English captains seem to wane at the sight of the SAffers.

Posted by   on (July 29, 2013, 3:31 GMT)

Its also worth looking at Sachin's averages when he was captain.

Posted by 2MikeGattings on (July 29, 2013, 2:41 GMT)

Cook did get 5 centuries in his first 5 tests as captain, so the only way is down... but I did think he looked a bit distracted at Lord's. All the fuss and nonsense with the Queen before the start of play, and 10 minutes later his head fell over his front leg and he was LBW, an old failing. Then in the 2nd innings he was uncharacteristically bowled. Still, he has somehow found time to make himself a decent slip fielder in the last few months so there's no reason to think he can't work on his batting too.

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