'I would like to see England attack a bit more'
When Mike Brearley led the players through the Long Room at Lord's on his first day as England captain, in 1977, he was already 35 years old. He had 16 years of first-class cricket behind him, the last six as captain of Middlesex, and was spending his off seasons working with disturbed adolescents as he prepared for a new career as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist. When Alastair Cook steps on to the field in Cardiff on Wednesday it will be his 34th Test as England's leader, yet he is only 30 even now. Apart from leading MCC in the 2007 season curtain-raiser against Sussex, he has never captained any team save England in a first-class match.
It is a contrast worth musing upon, as Brearley did when we chatted over a coffee close to his north London home, where he had agreed to share his thoughts on cricket and leadership, 30 years after the publication of his seminal work, The Art of Captaincy, which is on sale again this summer in an anniversary edition.
"It is a difficulty for today's captains," Brearley said. "If they get picked by England at a young age, as Cook did, they don't get any practice with county sides.
"And it is not likely to happen very often now, partly because they are contracted to England and hardly play for their counties, and partly because they spend so much time playing international cricket. It makes picking the right man to be England captain very difficult."
Brearley admires Cook as a man, and you sense he will be willing him this Ashes series to make a point to some of his doubters, of whom Brearley has been one.
"I've wondered if he lacks a bit of flair. I think from time to time he has been too defensive, too quick to put one back, a deep cover, a deep square leg, too quick to take third slip out and put in an extra cover or midwicket, too rarely to have a short leg.
"But there were signs in the New Zealand series that he was becoming a bit more positive not only in his batting but with his field placings and his bowling changes. Perhaps some of Brendon McCullum's approach rubbed off on him a little.
"I think you need to be prepared to be a little more bold in your tactics. By that I don't mean being prepared to lose, because no one wants to lose. One of the arts of captaincy is balancing risk against caution, attack against defence.
"It is not an easy job. You would not expect someone to be at their best as a theatre director in the first year they were doing it. There is no reason why he should not be improving."
An important difference in the challenge Cook faces against Australia this time compared with 18 months ago is that the distracting sideshow surrounding Kevin Pietersen will not be part of it. Pietersen's exclusion is seen by some as a failure on England's part, and there is an assumption that Brearley, the master of man management, the captain who coaxed out of a deflated Ian Botham and a labouring Bob Willis two of the most extraordinary performances in Ashes history at Headingley in 1981, would have dealt with him differently, and that Pietersen would still be in the team.
Yet Brearley is not sure the outcome would have been different had he been faced with a similarly difficult character, even though his observations might give some of the parties involved pause to reflect. He sees some parallels in his own well-documented difficulties with Phil Edmonds, the Middlesex and England left-arm spinner, a different character but who shared Pietersen's southern African background.
"I liked Phil, don't get me wrong," Brearley said. "We had lots of good discussions, he is very intelligent and articulate. For the most part we got on quite well but there were moments where I would feel he thought I was an idiot and I would feel he was contemptuous and we would have these stand offs when he felt I did not respect him.
"He was a different personality from Pietersen but perhaps there is an element that is common. There is a kind of style, bravado and assertiveness in white southern Africans that I think goes against the grain of English players and what you might say is their false modesty.
"It can come between not only the captain and the player but the dressing room and the player. On the one side you have someone who can be arrogant, although sometimes covering up his insecurity, and on the other side an attitude that is sometimes a bit snide and does not confront the problem directly.
"We heard the story with Pietersen about the fake Twitter account and the supposed involvement of some players. That is the kind of thing that rings a bell. It is anonymous, behind the back of the hand rather than face to face. The recipient would probably sense something was going on, even if he did not know exactly what, and would feel pushed to one side. Maybe that was true with Pietersen but maybe he invited it in some way too by something that came from him.
"He spoke of cliques, but he might have played into that by siding with the younger players, who would be respectful, to whom he would be a big figure who had something to say. His intentions would be perfectly honourable in wanting to help them become better players. But he might have been consciously or unconsciously wanting to have a little clique of his own.
"I think Phil Edmonds might have been better with a captain such as Ian Chappell or Geoff Boycott rather than me. Boycott would play against Edmonds in the nets and play a shot off the back foot and taunt him by saying, 'Another bloody four', and Edmonds would bridle and bowl better.
"In the Middlesex dressing room we were pretty upfront with Phil. We nicknamed him Margaret after Margaret Thatcher on the basis that she was leader of the opposition at the time and that's how we saw him. It was witty and he would grin and we would get on with things.
"Perhaps something a little bit brusque and direct from the England team and the captain might have worked better with Pietersen.
"But looking at it from the outside, the first thing to say is that you don't know what happened. I respect the people whose skins he got under - Andy Flower, Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook. It is a very qualified view, but if I had to come down on one side I would come down on theirs.
"And they got 104 Tests out of him in eight years, 8000 Test runs and quite a lot of ODIs. So you could say they were pretty successful."
Cook's England side, moreover, is not short of exciting stars, in Brearley's view. "If you look at No. 5 to No. 8 - Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali - you have four aggressive batsmen who need to be given their heads. That is exciting. Adam Lyth is a well organised player but he likes to play his shots. Cook we hope is back in form again now.
"I like the look of Mark Wood, and if the ball swings we have the best swing bowler in the world in Jimmy Anderson. I like Stokes as a bowler too - I think he can bowl in an uncomplicated way.
"Against Australia I would like to see us attack a little bit more when the ball goes through, and say to ourselves that this is when we are going to win the match, or at least go 80% towards winning the match, when we might take four wickets in 10 overs and have them 30 for 5. A little bit of flair and aggression.
"You can't criticise Anderson, taking 400 Test wickets, but I do because he can sometimes be swinging the ball sharply and he's still got a midwicket and mid-on and deep long leg and maybe an extra cover. I would like to see him bowl with three or four slips and a gully, no midwicket, maybe a short leg rather than a midwicket, and no extra cover. Sometimes he may get smashed through extra cover but the batsman is giving you a chance of getting him caught at third or fourth slip."
Brearley is not sure the Australia bowlers, in English conditions, will be as effective as at home, although he rates Michael Clarke as another formidable opponent for Cook as captain.
"He is pretty good. He has the side behind him and they are a tough, cohesive side. He makes a lot of right decisions on the field and is willing to attack most of the time. I think he is probably up there with Border and Waugh."
As for the book, even 30 years on, for all that the game has evolved, with skills taken to a new level, there is little about the philosophy it attempts to put across that Brearley would change.
"If there was one thing, it would be to stress to players the need to enjoy the game, to be yourself, rather than analysing everything and thinking too much," he said. "And to realise that compared with what some people have to confront, the anxieties of cricket are small beer."
The 30th anniversary edition of The Art of Captaincy, by Mike Brearley, with a foreword by Ed Smith, is published by Pan