Alastair Cook sees opportunity to make critics change tune

England captain comes out fighting ahead of uninterrupted one-day build-up to World Cup

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Alastair Cook, the constantly maligned captain of England, returned to the fray today. He looked chipper, sounded relaxed and was ready to rebut his legions of critics as his team prepared to begin their long campaign aimed at  winning the World Cup for the first time.

“Without a doubt,” he said trenchantly when he was asked if he had the range of shots and tactical nous both to open the batting and lead the one-day team. “I think the only time England have been No 1 in one-day cricket I was captain.”

Neither Cook’s 78 predecessors as England’s Test captain nor the 30 others who have led the one-day team have been scrutinised quite so closely or derided quite so frequently. There have been moments when he almost succumbed to the clarion calls for his resignation or sacking or, in some cases, both.

But he hung on to the jobs despite the opinions of pundits who included most vociferously the former captain, Michael Vaughan, and Cook’s friend and former team-mate, Graeme Swann. By the end of the season, given his employers’ resolute determination to back their man, his position was reinforced.

“Well, didn’t Michael Vaughan want me out as Test captain as well? That was about a week before and he actually had to admit he was wrong there as well,” Cook said. “So we have a great opportunity as a side to really put in some good performances and I  particularly am looking to do this. It will be great if people have changed their tunes in five months’ time.”

England have an unbroken run of one-day cricket in that time, starting with a seven-match tour of Sri Lanka for which they embark on Sunday, continuing with a triangular tournament in Australia and concluding with the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. It is probably fair to assume that Cook’s side will not be bookmakers’ or supporters’ favourites for any of them, especially the last, but their campaign has never been so meticulously designed.

“Since 1992, we haven’t done ourselves any justice in World Cups so with the planning from the ECB we need to make sure the guys are fresh, ready to go and have an extended period to build up to it. As players we know we have a great opportunity and I for one am really excited about playing one-day cricket where we haven’t got Test cricket in the forefront.”

All in all, Cook was in robust mood after spending almost two months down on the farm with his family. He was discernibly refreshed as he sat in the conference room of the England and Wales Cricket Board  offices at Lord’s and laid the Kevin Pietersen saga to rest in a dismissive sentence.

But, as he is undoubtedly aware, good press conference form is rather different from going out to bat again. Not a ball has yet been bowled in what will be a remorseless period for England. This long one-day stretch is followed immediately by a Test tour of the West Indies, a home Test series against New Zealand, the Ashes, and almost straightaway back-to-back tours of the UAE, to play a revitalised Pakistan, and of South Africa, the world’s best or second-best side depending on which day of the week the ICC rankings come out.

How Cook may yearn for his farm during some of those months. Runs will change everything, of course, and he needs them urgently. It is 39 innings since he last scored a one-day hundred (and 31 in Tests, the occasion will eventually come for him to be reminded) and he has only one fifty in his last 16. The indirect upshot is that England have lost five of their last six one-day series, including four in a row at home, and although between times they reached the Champions Trophy final it is marked regression.

“We haven’t won the last couple of series so we do have to improve the way we play,” Cook said. “I don’t think it is a radical change of method but what I do know is that I have been light of runs at the top of the order for the last 12 months – but the times before that when I have scored heavily at the top of the order we got really good totals.  I think the priorities changed for a little bit. We had back-to-back Ashes series so a lot of guys were rested from one-day cricket.”

While there was something in his estimation, the game has moved on and all excuses have now been expunged by a schedule which puts the focus entirely on the 50-over game. Sri Lanka in November (it may well rain throughout) will have little bearing on Australia in March, but it is an opportunity for England to find a team and unite, or bond as the modern player has it.