June 22, 2014

Cook needs to get on the front foot

More intent to stay forward at the crease and on the field as captain will help mute his harshest critics - one in particular

Captain Cook is on the bridge. His cry for help to shut down his non-playing arch- rival, Shane Warne, has been bellowed across the bow. It's official: the normally calm run machine feels the guns have turned on him. And he has fired back. While there is much to do in Test-match battle this summer, Alastair Cook may just have stirred up more for himself.

While Cook is firmly in fight mode, he could also take stock. It's easier said than done, but when you are getting sliced from all sides - including recently from his own Gray- Nicolls blade - you must change tact. His batting needs a warrant of fitness, his mood a new registration. I can't remember when he last played a genuine straight drive down the ground in a Test, with feet and body in a commanding forward position.

Playing straight is vital for any opener, but an absolute prerequisite for the English captain, on and off the field. He has to get on the front foot when facing Asian bowling attacks, and he has to let every single bouncer he receives off the field go aimlessly by. To listen to any of it is akin to playing on while trying to cut too close to his body.

You wonder if it's all becoming too much: whether Cook is standing on a bow about to break. Short-term relief by virtue of some time in the middle will not change the criticism from certain quarters. He needs everything to spruce up to stop the barking. His batting of late, his tactics, his slow over rate, his press conferences, are all exposing a man who never really naturally has owned that X factor needed to lead. Maybe his retort to Warne is a sign of a nice guy putting on a mask for the first time.

Cook has two solutions to consider, leading to the one silver lining. Firstly, if he can actually let go of some of his old ways and go for broke with a glass-half-full approach in all his roles as the leader. Then he may well enjoy the transformation. Secondly, he must get back to going forward at the crease.

This extravagant back-foot, bat-pumping-high method has edged over the threshold and is on the verge of derailing his whole game. As a keen observer I feel softer, lower hands, a lower sense of gravity, less back-stepping, and more intent to stay forward could solve his ability to play a good all-round game again. Playing back successfully actually comes from a good press off the front foot, once forced back after intending to get forward. Cook's back-foot game is in danger of being dismantled as well, as seen in the first innings at Lord's, due to the leaning back that comes from the excessive back-stepping.

Meanwhile, Warne is like a dog with a bone. He makes some excellent points, but he simply can't resist repeating it over and over, the record broken. As a result he is losing some of the commentary kudos he earned. He speaks so fast, with no end in sight, that his opinions often don't match the live play being acted out in front of his eyes. Less is more, mate. No one is disputing the content of his wisdom, just the volume and repetition.

The ECB hasn't helped its captain. Unfairly, one would assume, a massive amount of responsibility pointed to Cook as nearly a whole management team was sacked and replaced by a nervous one. Worst of all, the Kevin Pietersen sacking has become Cook's burden to bear, whether he was instrumental in it or not. Whatever the truth, Cook must certainly have regretted ever getting involved in selection the first minute he was named to replace Strauss. He was a young rookie captain back then, and one under siege at present. Selectors should take the heat for all selections, coaches for the preparation, the captain for the on-field execution. A burden like that can only weigh you down, and must be removed.

Whatever the truth, Cook must certainly have regretted ever getting involved in an individual selection of the magnitude of Pietersen the first minute he was in charge. It haunts him now.

The past is history and pointless, the future a complete unknown and an illusion. So only the next ball can be on Cook's mind from here on. In truth, if he can quieten his mind and just be attracted to the movement of the ball - the way of playing that secured his 25 well-earned centuries - and go on the attack in the field as he showed glimpses of doing in Leeds on day one, then England and their proud skipper will find the broken record may have been muted for good.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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