Cook out to make critics eat words
For Alastair Cook the moment of truth may already be at hand. Not a year into his captaincy of England's one-day team, three years before the next World Cup in which it is intended he should lead them, and it is becoming clearer that if he wants job security he should become Health Secretary.
Some time in the desert during the next fortnight he has to guide his team to an oasis where victory lies. If England capitulate for the second time this winter, the scrutiny under which Cook has found himself since being appointed last spring may become too much to bear for selectors, management and the man himself.
England have four one-day internationals against Pakistan, beginning in Abu Dhabi today, and it is imperative that they not only contrive to win at least one but to compete on something like an equal footing in the others. In some ways this is grossly unfair, in others it is merely a manifestation of the prejudice which has accompanied Cook's role since his appointment.
Cook has never gained full acceptance, at least outside the dressing room, either as captain or as one-day batsman. There remains the suspicion, well-founded or not, that he was made captain of the one-day team when Andrew Strauss stood down, as a kind of grooming process for the Test team.
This has happened before – Michael Vaughan was briefly in charge of the limited-overs side before ascending to glory. In the view of sceptics, Cook's prime defect is his batting: just not up to speed, so to speak, in the ODI arena.
The statistical evidence is all in Cook's favour. He has reinvented himself as a short-form batsman. In the early days, when England were still in the one-day dark ages, neither he nor they had a clue. Limited of shot and strategy, he poked around, averaging 32 with a strike rate of 68.
But since taking over the side permanently last June, Cook has scored more runs than any of the other batsmen (600, 82 ahead of Jonathan Trott) at a greater average (46.15, three points ahead of Trott and Eoin Morgan) at a tidy lick of 93.17. His scoring rate is behind Craig Kieswetter and Eoin Morgan, but ahead of Kevin Pietersen.
Perception is not always reality. If Cook's scoring areas are limited he has made them his own and he has never wasted power plays. Perhaps he is a one-day batsman after a fashion but it is not as out of fashion as some would make out.
As a captain, Cook is not of the inspirational kind. He cannot quite shake the idea that he does it by numbers. When England were being walloped 5-0 by India last October he occasionally looked at a loss.
This view was reinforced when Graeme Swann took over the Twenty20 captaincy in an emergency at the end of that ill-starred tour. There was immediately a vibrancy about the team and the sense of a captain who looked as though he knew what he was doing.
Swann and Cook are mates, but Swann may inadvertently have damaged Cook's standing as captain. In his book, The Breaks Are Off, Swann alluded to Cook's stuttering team talks (which seemed reminiscent of his well-intended but not always fluent press briefings) in a way that suggested the troops were not exactly foaming at the mouth and ready for action after them. Cook's position may well take some heat off Pietersen in the next few days. Pietersen has been elevated to open the batting in the fervent hope that it will make him the player he once was and perhaps he never will be again.
Teams for today's first ODI, at the Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi (start 11am GMT)
England (from): A N Cook (captain), K P Pietersen, I J L Trott, R S Bopara, E J G Morgan, C Kieswetter (wkt), S R Patel, T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, G P Swann, S T Finn, J W Dernbach, J M Bairstow, D R Briggs
Pakistan (from): Misbah-ul-Haq (Captain), M Hafeez, I Farhat, Y Khan, A Shafiq, S Afridi, U Akmal (wkt), W Riaz, S Ajmal, A Rehman, U Gul, S Malik, A Ali
Umpires S Taufel (Aus) and A Raza (Pak).
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