Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney January 1, 2014

Cook faces second big challenge

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Just over a year ago, with the dressing room torn apart by bickering and the No. 1 ranking wrestled away by South Africa, Alastair Cook assumed the captaincy of the England Test side.

It was a tough time to take charge. The division between Kevin Pietersen and some of his colleagues was at its widest and England faced a daunting tour of India. By the time they lost the first Test of that series, it looked as if Cook may have inherited an impossible task.

But Cook found a way. At first he instigated a solution to the Pietersen issue. Then, through the example of his second-innings century in Ahmedabad, he showed his team how to score runs in India. He led from the front. Ten months into the role, England were unbeaten in a series, had reached the final of the ICC Champions Trophy and had retained the Ashes and won in India.

Now, however, Cook's leadership is under scrutiny. England have not only been beaten in Australia, but there is a perception that Cook is the sort of captain who follows the game. The sort of captain who is reactive rather than proactive. The sort of captain who operates by numbers rather than intuition.

But leadership comes in different forms. Cook may never be a great orator - David Bowie went through a period of cutting up words at random in magazines and forming song lyrics from them and sometimes it seems Cook takes the same approach with his press conferences - and he may never have the tactical imagination of Mike Brearley, but he is respected by his team, he is the youngest man in history to score 8,000 Test runs and, having taken on the job with very little experience, he is learning his trade in public.

He admits he has much to learn. But, as he takes his team into the final Test of an Ashes series trying to avoid a whitewash, he feels he is improving and that some of the criticism is based purely on the results.

"I do think I'm a better captain now because I've done the job for longer," Cook said. "You only really learn on this job no matter how many times you talk about it to people outside the game. The only way you really learn is when you're out there.

"You get flak when you lose games of cricket whatever you do and we've lost four in a row. You're going to get flak for that. Again, when you're winning in India that flak doesn't come and that is the nature of the thing.

"I do need to continually look to improve, without a doubt. It would be very wrong of me not to do so. There's never a fine art to captaincy; there are always people outside with different ideas as to what we should be doing. But Michael Clarke was getting a lot of stick when Australia were losing 4-0 in India, with people saying he wasn't a good captain, and suddenly he's winning games of cricket and he's the world's best captain. So that's the world we live in and we appreciate that."

Leading England over the next couple of years is likely to prove demanding. Cook accepts that an era is ending for the team that took England to the top of the world ratings and suggested as many as three new caps could be given for the Sydney Test. With such change to the team, he feels the importance and senior players and the current management structure become even more acute.

"I think it is the end of an era. If you go back eight or nine months, the England team picked itself and everyone was very solid in terms of results. What's happened over the last few months is that we know we can't solely rely on the 11 or 12 guys we picked constantly. But that gives opportunities to different faces and it's quite exciting to see whether those players can grab their chance.

"There's still a lot of cricket left in some of the more experienced guys. You only have to look at two players who have played very well for Australia here in Chris Rogers and Brad Haddin. They're delivering the goods at 36 years old. So experience can still be a good thing.

"We know what a good player Matt Prior has been over 75 Tests. He's had a lean year and he's the first to hold his hand up about that. His keeping has been pretty good for most of that time but we need him to be scoring runs too. He's nowhere near the end of his career. He's got to go back and prove that he's the best wicketkeeper batsman in the country if he wants his place back.

There was strong support too for Andy Flower, the coach who must help him reach fulfillment as a captain.

"He is a very good coach. I know the defeat has happened in a bad way here, but we are certainly evolving as a side and a lot of players are coming in. We do need strong leadership at this time. Andy is a strong man and a good leader."

If Cook is to prove an equally good leader, he can begin by rediscovering his batting form. A half-century in Melbourne - probably his most fluent innings of the series - hinted of a return to brighter times, but Cook's primary role in the side will always be as a batsman and his leadership will immediately appear more effective if he can return to the prolific form that played such a role in England's success in India

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on January 4, 2014, 22:47 GMT

    more Brearleyite revisionism. what tactics did he actually ever use? especially in 1979-80 when trounced by the only full strength Australian team he ever faced?

  • YashMaster on January 4, 2014, 9:43 GMT

    @Simon Pratt: Not the best captain - Graeme Smith? Where were you when people were hailing Ricky Ponting as the best captain - with Warnie, Gilchrist, McGrath, Hayden in the team? No matter who the resources are, it is how you captain them that makes the simple difference.

  • espncricinfomobile on January 2, 2014, 21:00 GMT

    @Ross_Co, this from Cook just further highlights his ineptitude. I do recall 'rumours' -- i.e., made up media speculation -- that it could be the end for Clarke, but his acumen as a captain was never in question. He'd do well to ask an older relative about Mike Brearley or Stephen Fleming and whether they were regarded as dunces when they were losing.

    I guess Cook thinks that winning = captain do good and losing = captain do bad. Less that one-dimensional thinking.

  • dummy4fb on January 2, 2014, 20:11 GMT

    @ Kepler22b Graeme Smith the best captain out there? I could captain SA with the resources at their disposal. Easy to say Smith is the best captain when is team are beating all and sundry. It's when they're up against it that a good captain makes the difference.

    Not in a million years should Bell be made captain, he is not the right character and the pressure could clobber is batting ability. The only other choice for captain if Cook was to resign/be stood down is KP, maybe he should have another go. It would be interesting to see the team/dressing room dynamic after 12 months of KP as captain. Of course it might be utterly drastic but realistically he is the only other option as captain out there.

  • BradmanBestEver on January 2, 2014, 20:08 GMT

    This series has shown us that the primary ingredient to winning test matches is desire to win.

    Overall there is not much difference in natural ability between these two teams - but there is a large difference in the tenacity, never give up attitude, team work etc.

    England are a loose collection of self-interested rudderless players.

    Australia are a cohesive group of team-oriented and goal-aligned players.

    Thank you Boofmeister! May you stay at the helm for many more ashes series.

  • dabbadubba on January 2, 2014, 16:25 GMT

    clarke is overrated... cook has good potential to be the all time greatest english captain. we should show patience and faith in him.

  • Jeeves_ on January 2, 2014, 15:01 GMT

    Do the English selectors know the difference between Division 1 and 2 cricketers? Apparently not. Onions and Compton showed they were quality players, and what was their reward? England's selectors need to be fired and replaced with people who watch the game. Also, selecting second division players is questionable. Michael Carberry is no test bastman. Tremlett has turned into a medium pacer. Bad selections, bad selectors!

  • Ross_Co on January 2, 2014, 13:57 GMT

    I must have missed people questioning the quality of Clarke's captaincy in India. Most acknowledged that it was positive and imaginative even in defeat. There are a lot more factors involved in winning and losing than the captaincy. Clarke's an excellent captain regardless of whether he wins or loses and likewise Cook is hopeless regardless of the result. That's the way it is.

  • mickjim on January 2, 2014, 13:54 GMT

    Bell as captain!!!! No. No. No. I don't think Bell is ever going to be fulfill his potential as a batsman, There a have been times over the past few years when you think he's cracked it and then he reverts back into making really bad mistakes - it's been said he is a good player of spin, well he's an ok player of mediocre spin - and even then he gets himself out too often to awful shots. Bell needs to concentrate on his batting but does anyone seriously see him as a captain. The truth is there is no obvious candidate. Unfortunately Cook is in post and seems now to be heading down the same path worn by all the most recent captains, all batsmen whose form has worsened the longer they stay in the job.

  • AussiePhoenix on January 2, 2014, 13:08 GMT

    For Cook to resign after this series would be a mistake, for ECB to sack him would be a huge mistake. He doesn't seem like the most ruthless tactician ever, but he will learn a lot from this series and deserves the opportunity to develop as a captain and continue. In the long run this experience will be good for the team, if the team are coached properly to deal with it. Accept mistakes, learn, move on. How many people, including Australians!, called for Clarke's head only six months ago? If that had occurred the Oz team would have gone backwards.