January 23, 2014

Not just Cook's cross to bear

England need to look for the maturity, honesty and lightness of being Australia have demonstrated, and they must all step up to the task

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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Peter on January 24, 2014, 2:27 GMT

    One more thing... If there ever was a case for panic then this is it because this test series was such an unexpected spiflication. They were totally obliterated by a team not expected to do so. It was a complete massacre

  • Peter on January 24, 2014, 2:23 GMT

    The targeting of KP is on the right track. Not because such targeting singles out one player but because it highlights the fundamental problems of (1) lack of strong team spirit (2) putting your team before yourself and (3) never say die attitude. KP scores lowly on all 3 of these factors. Because KP has high profile he cops more than his share of the flak. Nothing new there with high profile players.

    There are too many others in the English team that also score lowly on these factors and they should also be shown the door. The first guy I would select would be Stokes because he seems to score well on these 3 factors and he has ability.

  • David on January 24, 2014, 0:14 GMT

    Boring boring boring. Blame KP for everything. That should sort it all out. Find a Saffa scapegoat and all will be fine. Basically, if the Saffas - Trott, KP, Prior - stop scoring, Eng tanks. So, blame the Saffas. It is their job to score Eng's runs, right? Poms are not supposed to score runs. They are supposed to sit around and be the 'Officers.' The Saffa troops do the dirty work.

    Yeah - and Welcome to Fortress England, too.

  • Balaji on January 24, 2014, 0:05 GMT

    Another attempt to malign Pietersen. There are a number of things the England management has to answer. Trott, Swann, Prior, Finn, Panesar all fell apart. Surely you can't blame KP for all this. Even if KP was a disruptive influence, England had sufficient experience to counterbalance that. Again England can't keep blaming the schedule, Australia has played far more cricket. Like flickspin said, you win some, you lose some, so the defeat is not so big. What is big is the way events have unfolded, and to blame it on one player is not on, just not on. If after all this, KP is made a scapegoat, you have to seriously question Flower's management skills.

  • Tony on January 23, 2014, 23:39 GMT

    Overall, an excellent article. "It is not so long ago that England chose the captain first and the team second." That hasn't changed, but it's time it did. Cook is too young and too immature. He is frightened of innovation, has little imagination and captains by numbers - probably dictated by Flower and Gooch, at whos door I lay much of the blame for the destruction of current England batsmen's talent. These are two mediocre teams and South Africa would wipe the floor with either of them.

  • A.J on January 23, 2014, 23:26 GMT

    I honestly don't believe the English players are enjoying their cricket. They simply aren't having fun and it's showing.

  • Michael on January 23, 2014, 23:22 GMT

    The 'Nadir' tour result is the collective responsibility of all who participated. certain observations arise because of it. Trott is so valuable to the team. KP certainly did not play the only silly shots by miles. Root is not really ready for Tests. Players who are injured should not hurry back from recovery. Men are better than boys at this level-the 'just play youth'advocates need to belt up. Players of over 30 should be allowed to play on as they have a good few years left in them. If I were Graeme Swann I would leave no stone uncovered to get my arm functioning properly however attractive rock and roll may seem. The only way is not Essex by any stretch of the imagination. people should smile more. Life just ain't that bad.

  • V on January 23, 2014, 17:10 GMT

    I love these articles. Keep blaming KP for the debacle so making him scapegoat looks like a popular choice. The only way Aussies can be beaten is by playing attacking cricket (unless Aussies self-implode as it happened in earlier series). I am amazed Bell hardly gets blamed and even Cook (Oh I forgot that England captain performing is supposed to be an added bonus). I would keenly look forward to Eng-SL series - Each team would score about 100 runs a day and lose may be a couple of wickets. What an advert for test cricket!

  • Mohammad on January 23, 2014, 16:58 GMT

    To be pretty honest, oz as a team didn't play any miraculous cricket. Yes johnson did, to some extent Haddin also, but It was England that played the mediocrist of the cricket. I am damn sure that SA wont give any team any chance to recover from five down something more than once/twice. They go for the kill more ruthlessly and sedately than Aussies did. But of all, This is Australia's day, this is Clarke's moment and this is Johnson's time.

  • Dummy4 on January 23, 2014, 16:33 GMT

    Rob Key as an interim leader for 18 months/2 years

  • No featured comments at the moment.