Stubborn Cook can cut it as captain

Sledging and squabbles have made for a lamentable series but one-day leader will learn from experience

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The Independent Online

This is exactly the kind of series that Alastair Cook needed as England captain. He might not think so at present. His team, confident of defeating India a fortnight ago, are 3-0 down with two to play and, as is the nature of these things, it is already being suggestedhe would struggle to lead a poodle.

The match referee, Roshan Mahanama, has found it necessary to warn both teams about their behaviour, and there were moments during England's third consecutive defeat last week when it seemed as though the players might be about to offer each other, figuratively speaking, the chance to step outside. Cook occasionally looked nonplussed as he tried to keep a lid on matters.

In the heat of a close one-day international with the series at stake, tempers can fray. England have since reiterated (and kept reiterating) that it is important to challenge themselves and each other, short if at all possible of mutual throttling. The teams have been on each other's cases for weeks and some of the sledging, away from microphones, has been close to the bone. England, it seems, have little intention of backing down much. Mahanama was probably right to act, having played in one of the most contentious matches of all time.

At Adelaide in early 1999, MuttiahMuralitharan was called for throwing early on and the match between Sri Lanka and England descended into turmoil. By the end, Mahanama,one of the game's gentlemen, had appeared to obstruct Darren Gough, who responded with a feigned head butt in his opponent's direction, shortly after which the England captain, Alec Stewart, barged Mahanama. One of the most beautiful of all cricket grounds was reduced to a bullring. Mahanama probably sensed where matters might too easily head here.

There are two separate but related factors: the sides sledging each other and England's players falling out among themselves. For Cook, it must have made his inaugural tour as England's official one-day captain a torturous affair. He might have recalled his first match as an England captain, a Twenty20 match in Centurion late in 2009 when South Africa made 241 for 6 and fielders were running 50 yards to offer Cook advice, headless chicken type offerings, as England crumbled.

He never looked as hapless last week, but it was close. Being the man he is, Cook will turn this to advantage. The way he has learned the craft of batting is perfectly indicative. By adapting and adjusting, he has found a way of rectifying limitations when the gifts he has been handed might seem to preclude a way being found.

He is a stubbornly determined beggar. The refurbishments as a Test batsman and reconstructions asone-day player have not beenpretty but they have been effective, illustrating an admirable strength.

It is what he will do as captain. Eoin Morgan, partly because of his absence here, seems to have shot to the front of the queue as a future limited-overs captain but it would be folly to minimise Cook's chances of taking England to the next World Cup.

It may not have helped Cook on this short trip that Graeme Swann's book, published in the first week here, mentioned his stuttering team-talks, though the team management have summarily dismissed the idea. Swann is Cook's friend as well as his team-mate and they get along famously. The pertinent passage was brief but it was baldly put. Cook will be aware of it and may have been left smarting. Swann has been one of the offenders when there have been fielding lapsesoff his bowling, never bothering to conceal his annoyance.

This fractiousness has encouraged unflattering comparisons with Andrew Strauss. When a team have three captains, as England do – one each for Tests, one-dayers and Twenty20 – it is inevitable. Strauss is routinely sanctified now, and presumably that might become official on his next visit to the Palace. His achievements brook no argument and any tactical shortcomings he might have as a captain are overwhelmed by the awe in which he is held as a man and leader.

A main topic of discussion is whether what has happened under Cook would have occurred under Strauss, as though he would simply have stood at mid-off and dared his young charges to misbehave. Strauss deserves all the plaudits that have come his way. But lest it goes too far, it was only last year on the third day of a Test match at Edgbaston when Pakistan suddenly fought back that England became tetchily unattractive for the entire afternoon. Cook must assert control and authority and it would be better all round if he could avoid stuttering and merging his sentences while doing so. He must lead.

These have been a miserable few days for England, but do not yet dismiss the potential for the next captain to elicit the phrase: "Well he's hardly Cooky is he?"