Not just Cook's cross to bear
It is not so long ago that England chose the captain first and the team second. The consequence of this method is a long list of England caps awarded to cricketers who did not deserve them. The result of the method was a catalogue of fine leaders who brought out the best from those around them and who saw the team through tricky expeditions far and wide.
Leadership is not just the responsibility of one man. There was a revealing comment about George Bailey from Michael Clarke the other day. It said, "I can't tell you the benefit of having him around the group, his leadership on and off the field, his attitude. And that takes more courage and character than when you are making hundreds and taking five-fors. To give so much back to the team when you are not performing personally is an underrated thing in sport and why he is a great example. The whole team feels for him that he is not coming to South Africa with us." This is a remarkable endorsement and a reminder that the best generals are not threatened by strong lieutenants.
One cannot help but ponder Alastair Cook at this moment. He has said he will reconsider his future when the tour is over. It seems likely that he will stand down from the one-day game and continue as captain in Test cricket. Assuming, that is, he is given the choice. The noises made by England's hierarchy - chairman, chief executive, and managing director of cricket - who, to a man, scoffed at the notion of his removal from the job, must have withered him just as they have withered many a football manager before him. It really is best that everyone shuts up until the dust has settled. As the saying goes, "when in doubt do nowt".
While Clarke clearly felt the strong arm of support during the recent Ashes, so Cook must have felt desertion. Apparently Kevin Pietersen became a handful again. What a boring record that is. Cook rescued the Pietersen situation after Andrew Strauss stood down 17 months ago and if Pietersen has made life difficult for the man who offered and arranged forgiveness with a fresh start, he should be ashamed of himself. If not, he must quickly go cap in hand to his captain and while doing so admit that some of his dismissals in Australia were ridiculous. Pietersen should not be dropped by England for goodness' sake - imagine trying to explain why for a start - but the collateral damage must be limited by humility and common sense on both sides.
None of us on the outside know the extent of Jonathan Trott's illness. It seems inconceivable that a cricketer can make a hundred for England one week - as Trott did in Perth in the opening match of the tour - and then three weeks later suffer a depression so deep and so painful that a flight home was its only respite. Trott needed space and he needed his family - a residue from touring that is too easily underestimated - but first he needed to escape the confines of a single room in a hotel life. All of which suggests that he did not arrive in Australia with his mind strong enough to cope with the gunfire that overwhelmed him at the Gabba. Somebody made a mistake there. Trott himself perhaps, or the selectors, or the captain and coach. And it was a big mistake. This, and the overt aggression shown to the tourists by the Australian media and players, suddenly threatened to derail the tour. Two matches later, it was off the tracks.
On occasions it would be better if the holding company told us more. The ECB, and the tour management particularly, keep these things so close to their chest that rumour and conjecture take over. We don't actually know about Pietersen or Trott so we feed from morsels that drift into the ether.
Alone in his room in Perth, trying to make sense of the speed and ease with which England had handed back the Ashes to Australia, Cook cannot possibly have imagined the next grenade. If anything summed up the self-absorption of England's cricketers and the shambles of which they were a part, it was Graeme Swann's decision to retire mid-series. This was a desertion of unparalleled lack of concern for those around him. Probably the injuries had taken their toll. Perhaps Swann could take no more of Pietersen - their disaffection for one another has no bounds - or of the beatings given to him by Australian batsmen he had once locked up. But nothing can excuse his unwillingness to finish the job he had agreed to start, even if only in the wings.
The surprise was that the tour management let him leave so lightly, with platitudes about a great career and the right of any man to choose the moment of his own retirement. They should have said, go Graeme go - and a wonderful, important and warm-hearted cricketer you have been - but you do not do so with our blessing, not at this time of our need.
It is because of these events, along with the bizarrely ineffective cricket played by bankers such as Matt Prior and James Anderson, that it is almost impossible to judge Cook's capacity as captain. Remember, he had won famously in India and at home against Australia, extracting the best from his bowling attack and much of the best from Pietersen.
England's maturity in victory over India was as evident as was the their immaturity in defeat in Australia. How Cook must have hated that and how Andy Flower must have seethed at the clarity of its illustration. Flower left the land of his birth in a protest against the atrocities instructed by its leader, which is about as brave a thing as a sportsman can do. In Australia, he saw the team for which he now takes responsibility unravel without a fight.
If the clock were wound back 30 years and Bailey was an Englishman, he would now be touted for the captaincy. This is just the sort of crisis that old-fashioned officers were supposed to be able to sort out. Mike Brearley was a master of such moments, arriving with clear thinking and an insight into the minds of his players that allowed him to encourage a positive and unilateral approach. Brearley befriended Geoffrey Boycott, his talented problem child, as Cook did Pietersen, but this was in the days before extraneous distractions and massive potential earnings. Brearley encouraged Ian Botham to greater excess, thus ensuring the world did not close in around him. Rather than monitor Botham's diet, Brearley monitored his appetite for challenge and made sure the bar was set imperceptibly higher by the day. Botham would not let Brearley down.
Captaincy is a number of things and canny man-management is amongst them. Another is leadership by example, leadership that brings inspiration and sets standards through runs scored or wickets taken. Then there is the tactical thing. Numbers and plans or instinct? This incorporates the ability to anticipate the play and to occupy the mind of the opponent.
Cook was short of runs. Clarke made runs that mattered in the first two Tests of the series, a key time for putting out markers. Clarke has an imagination that is beyond Cook. Cook had previously inspired a loyalty that was quickly compromised by outrageous margins of defeat.
From a precarious hold on the job, Clarke has established supremacy. The reverse applies to Cook. He knows this but passionately believes the chance to regenerate England's Test cricket should be his. The options are not obvious, which is in Cook's favour. Eoin Morgan would be a good choice for the one-day team because he plays the game with unique flair and a cold-eyed understanding. Also, he seems more of a man than some, as if the rest of life has not passed him by.
It is dangerous to be seduced by one-day cricket; Bailey is testament to that. But Morgan's sense of adventure has a place in Test cricket if the straighter bat we have seen in Australia is an overall measure of improvement. Maturity, honesty and a lightness of being should be the holy grail for which England now search. For the moment at least, Australia have found it. England can take heart from the suddenness with which it happened but the players must realise that the captain cannot achieve this alone. They have a responsibility too. Ask Boycott and Botham.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK