News Analysis

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

George Dobell
George Dobell
Alastair Cook gets a handshake from Andrew Strauss, England v Australia, 4th Investec Test, 4th day, Chester-le-Street, August 12, 2013

Andy Flower: "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"  •  Getty Images

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