It wouldn’t be a proper Ashes build up without some outspoken comments from Shane Warne, and this time he has focussed his attention on England’s captain, Alastair Cook, who Warne describes as “boring and negative”. On the other hand, he considers the Australian captain (and Warne’s close friend), Michael Clarke (profiled by Stumped here) to be the best captain in the world, despite Australia not having won a test match since January. The two are certainly very different, but what is it about Cook that has made his first year as England captain so successful and how is the battle with Michael Clarke likely to play out on the next 6 weeks?
Alastair Cook was born in Gloucester on Christmas day in 1984. He grew up in Essex but his musical talents gained him a place at St Paul’s Cathedral School, where he sang in the choir and learned the Clarinet. He was later awarded a music scholarship to Bedford School but quickly became more interested in cricket, though he maintains that the concentration and discipline required for his music has also helped his cricket. He learned his craft under the tutelage of form Nottinghamshire and England batsman, Derek Randall, who described Cook as a natural. So natural in fact, that at 14, he scored a century against his own school, while playing as a last minute replacement for a visiting MCC XI. Despite his focus on cricket and music, the young Cook still left school with 3 A Levels.
Having joined the Essex Cricket Academy at 15, he made his first class debut at 18, quickly establishing himself in his now customary position as an opening batsman. At 21 he made his debut for England against India and his impact was immediate, scoring 60 in the first innings and 104 not out in the second. Over the next 2 years he firmly established himself as an essential part of both the Test and One Day squads. 2009 and 2010 were less productive for him personally and as the focus moved towards the upcoming Ashes series in Australia, there was even talk of him being dropped. He had been trying to improve his technique, but the effect was that his performances got worse, until he finally decided to just accept what came naturally to him and almost immediately started scoring runs again.
His performance during the 2010/11 Ashes series in Australia was magnificent, scoring 766 runs in the series and averaging an incredible 127.6 as England retained the Ashes. Not surprisingly, he was named as one of Wisden’s 5 Cricketers of the Year in 2012. At the age of 28 he has already scored more test centuries than any other England player (25) and having already scored 7801 Test runs you feel that only serious injury can stop him beating Graham Gooch’s record of 8900.
It’s fair to say that his batting style is patient, rather than adventurous. During a test match against India at Edgbaston in 2011 he was criticised by Geoff Boycott of all people, for not scoring runs quickly enough. The truth though, is that Cook is a master at the traditional art of being an opening test batsman, able to adapt his game to a wide variety of conditions, often providing a rock solid base for other, more aggressive, teammates to build on. His temperament is calm, in fact he’s famous for hardly sweating, even in hot weather, meaning that his ball polishing skills have become a key weapon in England’s bowling attack.
When Andrew Straus retired in 2012, Cook was, for many, the obvious replacement and the England management agreed. His captaincy began with one of the biggest tests for any England team, a Tour in India, but Cook (and England) excelled and won the series, the first time an England team had achieved this feat in 28 years.
As well as the obvious pressures of winning matches, there was also the lingering Kevin Pietersen saga in the background. Pietersen is one of the world’s greatest players, but after his difficult spell as England captain and the furore over texts he sent to his South African friends whilst England were paying a series against them, there were questions about his international future. Cook oversaw Pietersen’s successful return to the England side, a return which, currently at least, is working well for all parties.
Pietersen and Cook could hardly be more different, which is probably exactly what England need. Cook may lack some charisma in front of the camera, but he seems to be a popular choice amongst his teammates and a calming influence in the dressing room. His early dealings with the media bordered on frosty, but as time went on (and results have gone his way) he seems to be growing more comfortable in the role.
He takes the same, cautious approach to captaincy as he does to his batting and this disciplined approach has been questioned most recently by Warne, but also by others during the Ashes tour in the summer, when even I felt perhaps that, facing a questionable bowling attack, England could have perhaps clicked up a gear at times, to try and finish off their opponents. Of course you’ll never please everyone, and so far, his approach seems to be working well so Cook would rightfully argue that it would be foolish to change it.
Playing against Australia brings inevitable comparisons with Michael Clarke, who, like Cook, is a fine batsman, but the similarities don’t go much further than that. Clarke is often praised for his inventive style of captaincy; trying out unusual fields and swapping his bowlers round to stop the batting side getting too comfortable. But then Clarke is captaining a side, which, with the exception of Clarke himself, is lacking in truly world class players. He has no real choice but to make bold decisions, and even when he has, it hasn’t helped their results.
Alastair Cook is luckier, in that he is leading a team with perhaps 4 or 5 truly great players, and no real passengers. There is a reason why Michael Clarke was able to name the England team, that is because it’s both a settled and an experienced team, which largely picks itself, while Australia are forced to search high and low for a credible bowling attack. All the time that Cook leads a team of such quality and manages to keep them motivated, it’s hard to see how anyone, bar South Africa, can stop them.
Cook doesn’t need to take risks, in fact it would be mad to fundamentally change such a successful formula. The only question, perhaps, is what would happen if England were to wobble and find themselves 2-0 down after the Adelaide test, does Cook have the ability to turn things back their way? The truth is that we don’t know, because he hasn’t been in that situation yet, but what we do know, is that despite the calm exterior, he has a deep desire to win and a keen sense of the historical significance of winning back-to-back Ashes series. This is not a man who is going to crack under the pressure.
The Australian media (and Shane Warne) will do what they always do, but you get the feeling that Alastair Cook is happy to just let them get on with it. He’ll speak to the press, of course, but if things go to plan in this series then he will make more noise on the pitch.