May 8, 2014

Cook must bring the joy back

As England make a fresh start under a new regime, it's up to the captain to find a way to make his players cherish the national cap once again

Tomorrow, in Scotland of all places, the renewal begins. After a winter of discontent, the summer of dreams has a starting block in Aberdeen. There may be more cricket clubs per capita in Scotland than in England but not many are much good (a Scottish cousin told me that). The weather is a threat - it can be pretty fresh up there in the spring - and the locals have nothing to lose, which is always a bummer for the favourites, especially away from home. Still, Peter Moores has had a week to lick the lads into white-ball shape and by Saturday morning the ghost of the Dutch should be back in his eyrie.

Alastair Cook has again admitted that he was close to handing in his papers after the tour of Australia, not that anyone doubted the seriousness of his intention at the time. Rarely, if ever, can a tour have taken so much out of one man and in so many different ways. A shadow of himself with the bat, increasingly helpless in the field, pale and pained, though never without dignity, in front of the media, and, by the end, pining for home and for Alice, his pregnant wife, it was Cook who best illustrated England's suffering.

He was, of course, badly let down. But that is old ground and to cover it again serves no purpose. When asked to continue in the job by Paul Downton, he accepted within the parameters of a few conditions and now they are in place, he is moving forward with a freshness born of a smiling baby daughter and a long break from the game.

The captain of England is making plenty of runs for Essex and says he is enjoying playing the other game, the one we all still play, where you write Test teams on bits of paper and tinker with them for as long as sanity prevails. Let's join in. The core of a competitive side remains intact. Cook himself, and Ian Bell with the bat, Matt Prior with the gloves (the captain appears to think Prior will be fit by early June) and both Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad with the ball. We assume that Joe Root and Ben Stokes are in this mix too. Thus four more players are needed but they are not immediately obvious. Nick Compton, Sam Robson, James Taylor and James Vince each offer something different and promising with the bat. Steve Finn and Graham Onions remain a class above other fast bowlers. Ask a good county batsman who he least likes to face and he will say Onions, though most add that the Finn of a couple of years back was a mighty proposition. If it is pace we are after, the circuit says Tymal Mills has Mitchell Johnson wheels. The "heavy ball" bowlers are Chris Jordan and Jamie Overton. Others who get a tick for attitude and potential are Harry Guerney and Chris Wright.

Sadly, there is no spinner to catch the eye. A surprising number of county batsmen suggest reverting to Simon Kerrigan, whose debut at The Oval last summer was an excruciating embarrassment. There is a voice for Scott Borthwick but not as a sole purveyor, more of a Harlem Globetrotter option when the conditions are clearly in his favour. Moeen Ali is given a strong reference: tidy with ball, impressive with bat. Maybe he is the one then.

If Cook can find a way to deregulate, he will alleviate some of the numbing routine that, often imperceptibly, can drive players into a shell of suspicion

English cricket will have to get over Graeme Swann. The luxury of a big-spinning, wicket-taking, slip-catching, run-making, main-chance-taking, match-winning and media-savvy frontline slow bowler has gone to the great microphone in the commentary box. Moeen, it is over to you. Keep it tight at one end while the big guns blaze away at the other. Make yourself famous Moeen, it is your time.

But it is the personnel rather than the ethos that will interest fans and critics in the coming months. The real frustration in losing the Ashes was less the loss, more the nature of the capitulation. This summer, and if not then, certainly the next year will establish whether Cook is the man to lead England's mission of revenge in 2015, when the Aussies are back in England once more. Outwardly there is something vanilla about Cook. Only on the inside will you find the ruthless man. This introspection does not a captain make, so he must tinker with his own characteristics in order to get those around him playing effective and committed cricket.

On the one hand he must show the team the value of the family farm, where working the land and the livestock brings balance to his life. On the other, he must get them so focused on cricket that they don't muck up sessions that cost Test matches. On a number of occasions in Australia, England held the upper hand only to relinquish it with feeble responses. Even in Melbourne, with both series and spirit gone, England led by more than a hundred with ten second-innings wickets in hand but, predictably, made a hash of it. That collapse and those that preceded and followed it were astonishing to watch. In the blink of an eye - a couple of days in Brisbane, to be more precise - the England cricket team lost its cohesion and direction. There seemed nothing left to give and certainly not for each other. Cook suspected as much post-Brisbane when asked if a collective will remained for the fight. He said he hoped so. How fragile we are.

Probably, and the theory has been well documented, the players were on the edge of a burnout of sorts. Too much high-intensity cricket over the previous couple of years and too much scientific analysis and preparation to go with it. In short, they had been micro-managed to within an inch of their enthusiasm. A story was told in these pages by David Hopps of a young England player who felt there was no escape from the ongoing assessment of every little thing that you do. He said it wore him down and ultimately made him fearful of expressing himself. Peter Moores will have listened to such stories and learned from them, for he was guilty of such head-masterly scrutiny last time round. These things happen with the best of intentions. Andy Flower and the impressive men around him wanted nothing more than the best for the team and from the team.

Cricketers do lead extraordinary, often overwhelming, lives. They are well rewarded but this does not guarantee performance. The key is to have the players rested, relaxed and focused. Each match must mean something special or they will all merge into one another and become a chore. An England cap is something to be treasured and enjoyed. It should neither become a burden, nor lead to arrogance. There is a case for winding back the clock a bit to the days when backroom staff meant a coach and a physiotherapist and the warm-down was conducted in conversation over a beer. This is not to render ice baths and analysis obsolete but to say that cricket has always reflected the rhythms of life, which allow room for people of all shapes and sizes, never mind approach and attitude.

If Cook can find a way to deregulate, he will alleviate some of the numbing routine that, often imperceptibly, can drive players into a shell of suspicion. His gift is to empower those players, encouraging expression through a free spirit. As they say in showbiz, to ensure they leave nothing out there, because years down the track, when the slippers are by the fire, even the most talented will look back and wonder why on earth they didn't make the most of their moment and do so with a smile on their face. After all, they are representing their country at cricket - surely the greatest privilege of all. It is with this in mind that Cook must set the course ahead.

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

  • Android on May 10, 2014, 12:20 GMT

    sure as soon as I think of cook and bell I am filled with joy ;)

  • Randolph on May 10, 2014, 1:28 GMT

    Hope there is plenty of humble pie in the cookbook

  • Nicholas on May 9, 2014, 20:59 GMT

    @dunger.bob (post on May 9, 2014, 0:37 GMT): Yeah I got what you meant and didn't think you were being bombastic; similarly I didn't mean to imply you were a 'Warner worshipper'. This whole 'fear of unorthodoxy' thing by the ECB has been discussed on a few previous threads, and frankly I agree with it. Several posters made valid points that it's highly unlikely the likes of Malinga and Murali would have ever stood a chance in England! I think the closest thing we've ever got to unorthodoxy is a few of the players dying/cutting their hair in amusing ways...

  • Jason on May 9, 2014, 12:03 GMT

    @James C Birbeck Dar, as a Yorkshire follower, I don't believe that Rashid is international quality, While he scores runs and takes wickets, he generally lacks the ability to dry up runs and seems to bowl a 4 ball ever over. This can accommodated at county level, but cant be at test level.

    Hes only 26/27 so has plenty of time in him to improve and develop.

    In regards to KP, I'm sorry to say I disagree, KP hasn't been the player the media make him out to be since the start of 2009.

    The biggest problem England cricketers faced was the work load, over the last 12-18 months where they played 19 tests, of which 12 were overseas, and I'm not even taking ODI's into account of which there must have been 40+ played in the same timespan.

  • Chris on May 9, 2014, 11:48 GMT

    I also think it might be worth taking a look at Rashid in the absence of a bundle of outstanding options. His bowling hasn't developed as hoped for but he's a good all round cricketer and offers a slightly different line of attack. All this "pride in the cap" nonsense drives me crazy! These guys are professional cricketers at the top end of their profession and they should take pride in their performance in every game and play according to the prevailing match circumstances. When a batsman walks to the middle or a bowler gets the ball thrown to him it shouldn't matter too much what colour cap he's wearing.

  • julian on May 9, 2014, 10:48 GMT

    Nicely written piece, as ever Mark. Although I do feel you missed a trick when talking about Graeme Swann's new role.

    Articulating that the 'slow bowler has gone to the great microphone in the commentary box' might surely have been expressed as 'the slow bowler has gone to the great gig in the Sky'!

  • Dummy4 on May 9, 2014, 8:29 GMT

    Interesting and perceptive article by a former captain. The key, I think, is in the last paragraph, and the big "If" at the start. Cook has already been instrumental in firing England's most free-thinking and expressive batsman (whatever his other faults), and the aggression in England's cricket (in terms of the way it's played, not the verbals and pouting) has gone massively backwards since 2005 (look at run rates in tests). I really hope England can get back to playing aggressive, entertaining cricket, but I doubt it.

    One player who never gets a mention for the spinner's berth is Adil Rashid, who makes runs and gets wickets for Yorkshire. He last played for England 5 years ago, but he's still only 26. Time to take another look?

  • John on May 9, 2014, 8:19 GMT

    When it comes to selecting a Test Match Side,there only so many players to chose from.In the ideal world each country would like to have a team of 11 World Beaters,but in reality that will never happen.As an Englishman my preferred England starting line up would be:- Cook,Compton,Bell,Root,Tailor,Stokes,Prior,Broad,Anderson,Finn,Onions. People would look at that IX and remark about the spinning option,but England in the past have used Joe Root.As for Cook's captaincy,who knows if he was restrained by the previous Management Team or not,only time will tell in that regard.Fans the whole world over have opinions on the make up of National Teams and who the Captain should be and long may that continue,but unfortunately the fans do not have any say on the make-up of the IX or the Captain who finally take to the field of play.

  • Rajkumar on May 9, 2014, 6:44 GMT

    @f and what was the score line after NZ-Eng series .Indian bowlers will go all the way and hand the series over to the opposition .batting out 2.5 days scoring at will, chasing 416 to win etc are possible only against them on a regular basis.If Eng batting line up don't make runs against them they can forget about batting and I swear by that. Added to that their captaincy and field placements are the toast for any opposition.Thats all I meant.

  • James on May 9, 2014, 5:21 GMT

    @landl47: Wishful thinking, and you know it. Same thing Botam said, do you really think the young bowlers will be injured for ever? Harris and Johnson didn't start playing consistent cricket till they were in their late 20's due to injuries, it's nothing new.

    Also, you are overestimating the power of age. Ponting, Hussey retired last summer at the ages of 38,37 respectively, don't be surprised if the old dogs you speak of are still playing in 18-24 months.

    Also, a year ago Australia had the youngest team on show. The years if urt between 2009-2013 gave Australia a group of 8-10 young players with test experience already, hungier than ever to break into the side. People forget that blokes like Langer, Hayden, Martyn were never fixtures till their late 20's, so don't count out Hughes, Khawaja, Starc, Pattinson, Cummins, Doolan, Marsh, Wade, Bird, Paine and more just yet.

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