To general expectation but hardly widespread approval, England formally announced their 79th Test captain yesterday. Alastair Cook will lead the side on their tour of Bangladesh next month, taking over temporarily from Andrew Strauss, who has been given the chance to rest after an arduous year.
The criticism was less to do with Cook – although there were those who questioned his credentials – than with the decision by the selectors to give Strauss a break. There are concerns that the balance of the dressing room will be affected, that Cook may struggle to lead some of its more experienced and robust personalities and that Strauss should simply have got on with his job.
Cook will be captain for both the two Test matches and the three one-day internationals preceding it. Although he has not been part of the one-day side recently he will act as a direct replacement for Strauss both as captain and opening batsman.
Five uncapped players have been selected in the Test squad of 16 players which contains six seam bowlers and only two spinners, a peculiar combination for the sub-continent. The one day squad will also play two Twenty20 internationals in Dubai before embarking for Bangladesh, in which Paul Collingwood will be captain although Cook will be there.
Strauss, well aware that his furlough was being interpreted in some quarters, not least those occupied by former England captains, as a dereliction of duty, provided a trenchant defence. "There have been a number of discussions over a number of weeks about this between myself and Andy Flower, the coach, the selectors and Hugh Morris, the managing director of England cricket," he said.
"I am feeling pretty jaded to be honest, it's been a long year with the Ashes as well and I am very conscious of the 18 months of cricket that starts in May with the Ashes tour and the World Cup. My view on this, which is shared by the management, is that if you accept that there is a need to rest players at times then a captain should be allowed to have that rest as well. The notion that a captain continues until he is mentally and physically exhausted doesn't seem in the best interest of the side."
Nobody should doubt that Strauss has had a tough inaugural year. He took over in messy circumstances when his predecessor, Kevin Pietersen, was deposed after a split with the coach, Peter Moores, who also went. Within a fortnight he was taking the team to West Indies and then had to plan a gruelling but successful Ashes campaign at home.
On Sunday, Strauss finished a tough Test series in South Africa which his side drew 1-1 after a heavy innings and 74 runs defeat in the final Test. As it happens, had England batted for perhaps another 30 overs in their wretched second innings, they may well have secured a draw and a barely deserved series win since there was torrential rain in Johannesburg on Sunday afternoon and all day yesterday. Strauss scored only 170 runs and his batting average over the four matches was 24.28.
But former England captains, Michael Atherton, David Gower and Nasser Hussain among them, have expressed considerable doubt about the wisdom of Strauss's decision. The team in the past year has been moulded in his image and cricket dressing rooms where teams spend weeks upon end together are fragile commodities.
Geoff Miller, the national selector who advocated the break, said: "He's been rested to give him the opportunity to get his mind together again. This is not just about the present, we had to look towards the future as well and this is an opportunity for us to find out whether Alastair Cook, who has played 50-odd Tests now, is material for a future England captain. There's no doubt Andrew needs a break. It's not just about performing with the bat it's about his mental state too."
At 25 years and 77 days when the first of two Tests begins on 12 March in Chittagong, Cook will be the fifth-youngest England captain and the youngest since Donald Carr, at 25 years and 40 days, had to take over for a match in India in 1952 in his second and final Test. Of more recent vintage, Ian Botham was 24 years and 194 days when he took over in 1980.
Although the most critical observers claim not to have detected many obvious captaincy or leadership traits in Cook, he has apparently demonstrated a different side to his character behind the scenes. There is a suspicion that Strauss would not have withdrawn had the tour been anywhere else but Bangladesh, the least accomplished of the Test nations but it will be no cakewalk.
They are improving in ability and temperament, they are growing in confidence at home and it is simply a difficult place to tour because of the heat, the conditions, the alien nature of the surroundings. Cook will need all the help he can get, but he will also have to be his own man. Were England to lose a Test match there would be immediate repercussions. There is more potential for them to lose a one-day match, which as they have never done so before, would also not go down well.
Cook said: "You have to do it your own way, it is a short-term role but it is very important I do it my way. I have a lot of help around, I am very close to Andy from our Essex days, that relationship has already been formed. If you are not your own man you can't do as well as possible, I can't be another Strauss or Vaughan. I think I am a leader. I just try and be myself, try and help as many people as I can. Obviously a lot of people with a lot of experience believe I have got leadership material."
Strauss attempted to placate the sceptics by insisting the change was being made for the right reasons, especially with the Ashes and the World Cup on the agenda during the next 15 months. "I would never forgive myself if I turned up for the Ashes feeling exhausted and not giving myself the best chance of performing my job as a captain and a batsman and not having the energy to keep players going in some pretty stressful situations," he said. Of course, he might not forgive himself either if his team lose in Chittagong or Dhaka in March and it may be doubtful if, when the going gets really tough in Adelaide or Perth next December, he gives thanks for the break he took nine months previously.