Alastair Cook admits England's two-coach system has been 'challenge' for all

Opening batsman forced to please Andy Flower and Ashley Giles while developing as a captain


Before the end of the year, unless the selectors go mad, form deserts him in an unprecedented fashion or injury strikes, Alastair Cook will have played 100 Test matches for England. He will still be only 28 years old.

This is a big year in Cook's career, perhaps the biggest, for reasons other than reaching that particular milestone. There are two Ashes series plus a Champions Trophy at home in which Cook, again barring unforeseen occurrences, will be the England captain.

And before all that there are five Tests against New Zealand which England must negotiate with due diligence and respect while expecting to win the lot. It is, as Cook acknowledged, an exciting time to be an English cricketer. But it is a tough time too, for there will be other issues to confront: the habitual one of the relentlessness of it all, the impending negotiations over players' contracts which threaten to be acrimonious, and the continued bedding-in of the two- coach system.

"It's actually a great challenge for us as a side to see what we can do in these 15 Test matches," said Cook. "I don't think any England side has had the opportunity to play two back-to-back Ashes series – and play New Zealand as well.

"So we have the chance to do something very special. But it's only a chance if we perform to the level we can. If we don't, we'll get found out."

England actually played back-to- back Ashes series in 1974-75, losing the first 4-1 and the second 1-0. It should be different this time. New Zealand also provided the light relief between the Ashes encounters then, England winning a two-match series on the way back from Australia.

The schedule in the next 10 months will stretch the most prolific of players, which is why even Cook will do well to see out the entire programme. Before the start of the first Test in Dunedin he had played 87 Tests, of which the last 85 had been in succession, a record for an England player.

Cook is still relatively raw as a captain and he is the first to have to work with two separate coaches, as opposed to the former situation where a coach has worked with two or three different captains. Cook recognised that there were potential difficulties with Andy Flower in charge of the Test squad and Ashley Giles guiding the limited-overs squad.

"I think it has thrown up a few challenges," he said. "I think when we first announced it, we knew there would be. There aren't problems as much as differences in character. They are things we have to be aware of. Going forward we have to manage both those but with Andy Flower and Ashley Giles involved it's going to be a lot easier.

"They are different guys naturally. Gilo is a different character to Andy but I think that's great in one way because it gives each squad a different direction. Andy is a very intense guy and Gilo is a little bit laid-back off the field. But what they want on the field is pretty much the same, demanding high standards and the excellence you need."

So Cook will have to adapt to their individual styles. This summer, no sooner will he have finished with Giles in the Champions Trophy than Flower will be at the helm for the Ashes.

Somewhere swirling around are the talks over pay. Angus Porter, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, put it out in the open the other day when he warned that England players were underpaid because they were forced to miss out on the Indian Premier League and were expected to play so much.

Cook is not daft. He knows there is potential at least for it to cloud the Ashes series, which would be disastrous for everybody concerned.

"Sometimes you have to remember how lucky we are to play for England," he said. "We're in a very privileged position. Yes there are a few tough times when you keep having to leave home and stuff, but it's a very short career and we should feel very privileged to be putting on the three lions. All that other stuff will be dealt with off the field or after the series, but this is not the time to talk about it."

But time for talking there will have to be. Cook is clearly still coming to terms with the demands of being the captain of England. It is easy to forget that he has still not led the team in a home Test. In that regard, he is perhaps fortunate to have two Test matches against New Zealand before the Aussies arrive.

Still, he knows how to get away from it all – down on the farm run by his wife's family where Cook is much at home these days.

"It's the challenge all captains have and all players have," he said before the First Test commenced.

"I have found a good balance between my home life and my cricket life. I do have a total switch-off at home. That gives me an advantage because I'm not sitting at home doing nothing. Obviously on the farm it just gets me away from cricket so when I do come to cricket I can give it my full attention."

He will need every ounce of it between now and next January.

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