The Investec Ashes 2013 August 13, 2013

Results vindicate captain Cook

Winning the Ashes was another impressive marker in Alastair Cook's fledgling captaincy and Andy Flower was keen to ensure he received due credit
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If captaincy is about tactical ingenuity, about surprising opponents with novel field positions and bold declarations, then Alastair Cook is, at this stage of his career, an also-ran.

But if captaincy is more about remaining calm under pressure, if it is about uniting a disparate group of individuals into a team with common goals and shared beliefs, if it instilling a clear purpose and providing consistent messages through example and communication, then Cook is developing into a fine leader. A leader very much in the image of Andrew Strauss, the man he succeeded in the role.

Cook's captaincy has attracted striking criticism in recent times. Shane Warne, who continues to sledge England from behind a microphone and in the pages of newspapers, may not recall but it is worth reflecting on the situation that Cook inherited when he was appointed 12 months ago.

England were a divided, defeated group of individuals. The fall-out from the Kevin Pietersen debacle had exposed cliques within the dressing room and defeats against Pakistan and South Africa had brought their period as the No. 1-ranked team to an abrupt halt. The tour to India loomed menacingly.

Yet, despite a thumping loss in his first game in command, Cook has led England to a series victory in India and retained the Ashes in the minimum number of Tests possible. England are now unbeaten in 12 Tests and came a panic away from winning the Champions Trophy. The team are now working together productively and have the opportunity not just to become the first England side to win four Ashes Tests in a home series, but to move back to No. 2 in the Test rankings. No reasonable judge could have asked for more from Cook.

So it should not have been surprising that Andy Flower, the England team director, used his first press conferences after England won the series against Australia, to praise Cook for his contribution to their success.

Flower is not a fellow to speak carelessly. He is not a man to do anything carelessly. In each press conference, while he arranges the dictaphones in front of him neatly (you get the impression he would like to catalogue them alphabetically in a binder), he ensures he conveys the message he wants and nothing more. And when he spoke to the media on Tuesday, he wanted to ensure Cook received the credit he deserved.

"One of the keys to our success has been the couple of outstanding captains we have had," Andy Flower said as he reflected on England's success in Durham. "A captain in a cricket team is a very important position. They are making constant decisions out in the middle. When they speak in the dressing room they have to be stirring and clear, sometimes showing empathy, sometimes showing real strength or even stubbornness. In Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook I think English cricket has been very lucky to have had, and still have in Cook, two outstanding leaders.

"Keeping calm was certainly important and Cook was excellent in that regard. They also tinkered slightly with their tactics which you would have seen after tea. At 140 for one Australia had played really well, but I thought our guys held their nerve well and tinkered a little. We created pressure and chances followed."

The key moment may have come at tea when Cook, sensing a need to up England's intensity, spoke to the team in the dressing room and coaxed one more effort from the bowlers. Pitching the ball fuller, they bowled with impressive hostility on a sluggish pitch and, after building the pressure, forced Australia to buckle in a spectacular final session.

"I was present in the dressing room at the time, but to be quite frank this is one of those instances where we don't talk about what we said," Flower said. "I won't talk in any detail about it but in those sorts of situations, at 120 for one, those are the instances where you need strong and decisive leadership and Cook showed that.

"He speaks fluently in the dressing room. He has handled the captaincy really well so far. Like all the players he is probably a bit weary after four Test matches but most of the guys will be feeling that way. But there is a nice break now before the fifth Test and he will be absolutely ready."

It is not hard to understand why Flower felt the need to praise Cook. In both the Test series this summer, many pundits have compared the captaincy of Cook unfavourably with that of first Brendon McCullum and then Michael Clarke. Yet England have won five Tests and the opposition have not won any. While you could argue with some justification that Cook simply has the much stronger side at his command, it does raise questions about the criteria being used by his critics. Sometimes it seems they use the word "bad" when they mean "unexciting". They are not the same thing at all.

But not only has Cook attracted criticism, his personal contribution has also been somewhat understated. He is averaging only 27.25 with the bat and has, at times, looked inflexible in the field.

That is not entirely Cook's fault. With a four-man attack to marshal Cook has limited options. Besides, England have something close to a formula and, by sticking to it, know that each member of the team understands their role. By adhering to their plans, with a few minor adjustments, England rarely panic, are rarely confused and, since the tour to India anyway, have rarely been beaten. They have a method they believe in and they pursue it relentlessly.

Their record suggests it is a decent tactic. While there are times England can look bereft in the field - they did for a while on Monday afternoon - instead of searching for new methods, they go back to the old one - bowl 'dry', build pressure and create chances - and attempt to follow it better. It may not excite the pundits, but it works. A boa constrictor can be just as deadly as a lion.

Flower accepts that the England have faults. He accepts that the top order have struggled during the series and that the team remains a work in progress. But he also feels they deserve credit for their resilience and determination.

"Our cricket side is not perfect, perhaps not even a great side," Flower said. "We don't call ourselves great. We don't think we're going to be perfect, we're all going to make mistakes and Australia are going to have some good periods of play of course. They're a good outfit themselves.

"I think it is fair to say that Cook and [Jonathan] Trott have not been at their absolute best, but they can't be at their best all the time. Both sides have shown real skill with the new ball and they have been testing conditions for batsmen so we haven't seen huge scores.

"But it would be more productive to focus on how we have fought ourselves out of those positions and been skilful and tough enough to get back into the game to continually build totals.

"All we're trying to do is win series. We don't put up on our white board 'What do we have to do to become a great team?' We plan how to win series, that's what we do."

"But I must say I quite looking at things like Bell's twentieth hundred and where he comes in the all-time leading batsmen for England. I quite like seeing those types of records because it does give you some sort of context in the history of English cricket.

"We have won the series. We will be presented with another Test match next week and they will be desperate to win it because they are representing their country and competing to win."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ReadThiS on August 20, 2013, 16:38 GMT

    Cook is a gentleman.. the team's performace is good because they like their Captain!! Its make a difference.

  • harshthakor on August 17, 2013, 7:06 GMT

    Overall,considering they were literally written off at the start of the series the Australian team has done itself credit.They deserved to win the 3rd test at Manchester and gave England a strong run for their money in the 1st and 4th test.With luck on their side the Aussies may well have been at 2-2 or atleast not more than 2-1 down.Only at Lords did England look on a different street.Neverthless England deserved to win the series being the better team in 3 of the 4 test matches played. Above all this series has been a victory for test cricket on the whole if you remember the twists and turns in the 1st and 4th test matches.The intensity and competitive spirit was remarkable.The tradition of Ashes cricket has been rekindled.

  • harshthakor on August 17, 2013, 7:05 GMT

    2-1 would have been the fair margin in a hard fought test series.England often failed to deliver the knock out killer punch at crucial junctures and almost let games slip away ,with the 1st test at Trent Bridge being the best example.Infact the English batting middle order failed to capitalize which could have made their side far more worthy winners. The series proved that test cricket is the best form of the game and that Ashes cricket is still the ultimate spectacle.The wickets too were sporting,above everything.I praise the Aussies for coming back with such heart after the debacle at Lords.

  • JG2704 on August 15, 2013, 7:29 GMT

    @CustomKid on (August 14, 2013, 22:39 GMT) Hello, - My counter is , how did Australia show lack of ticker with the bat in that innings? Yes the scorecard shows a collapse , but to me there was little evidence of rash or lazy shots (maybe evidence of lack of ticker) which led to the wickets It's like as a UK boxing fan. Ricky Hatton is his 2 stoppage defeats before he 1st retired could never have been accused of lack of ticker. He was outclassed vs FM but was still coming forward when stopped and vd MP he knocked clean out. David Haye (on the other hand) could be accused of lack of it vs Klitschko as he was way behind in the fight and never took any risks to turn it around.

  • Patchmaster on August 15, 2013, 1:20 GMT

    @ RandyOZ - how you'd love Cook in your side..........

  • iceaxe on August 15, 2013, 0:16 GMT

    Er,... perhaps this is b/c England just have a better team than the others?

    Cook has done nothing to impress me with his captaincy talent.

    McCullum on the other hand, has been a far more improvising. The only difference was his team folds far too easily.

  • dummy4fb on August 14, 2013, 23:26 GMT

    Its been individuals that have won the series rather than brilliant captaincy. He's a wait and see captain. Nothing wrong with that if your team is dominant as England are but get a team that's an equal. different story.

  • HatsforBats on August 14, 2013, 23:08 GMT

    England continue to be a safety first, overly defensive team. This works well against weak batting lineups unable to tough out quality bowling (like Australia), but against high quality batsmen (like SA) it highlights they are unable to achieve the win through attacking play. Waiting for the other team to lose shouldn't be the order of the day, England are capable of being much better than that. Cook should take neither praise or criticism for how England play, this is Flowers game plan and it would prevail no matter who was captain. The core of this England team has played together for 5 years, the unity of purpose is evident, so of course they are all singing from the same hymn sheet, Cook did not bring this side together. The negativity of this approach is that it's not only boring, but it could also prevent the England players from reaching their full potential. If Eng & Aus swapped captain and coach its hard to imagine that these matches wouldn't have been even shorter.

  • CustomKid on August 14, 2013, 22:39 GMT

    JG2704 on (August 14, 2013, 17:26 GMT) Good comments JG, you might have misread what I said - 'if Australia showed some ticker and could bat', they've shown absolutely none or better yet have none. The exception to that comment is Chris Rogers who has it in buckets full. Not pretty but puts a high value on his wicket did a stellar job last test.

    I agree the bowling was good from England and there weren't any rash shots other than Smith's attempted hook shot.