Test of character awaits Alastair Cook the run-machine
New leader cannot be faulted on field but the job is about far more than merely playing
So far, the portents are good for Alastair Cook. Only Lord Hawke, one of the most eminent chaps in the history of the game, has a better record as an England Test captain. Cook has played two, won two; his Lordship played four and won four.
The circumstances, as it happens, were strikingly similar. Lord Hawke went on two tours of South Africa when they were insipidly weak in the 1890s; Cook took England to Bangladesh, who were less dull but equally brittle, in 2010.
For neither man was it any kind of apprenticeship for defeating other, much superior opponents.
Cook, at least, is about to have the opportunity after being named yesterday as the successor to Andrew Strauss. He has been groomed for the job, hence his leadership on the sub-continent, his elevation to the one-day captaincy after Strauss resigned from that post last year, and his period as official vice-captain in the Test team.
But being groomed for and performing the role are entirely different, as Cook is about to find out. There is a constant burden as captain of the England Test team that no amount of limited-overs frippery, even in World Cups, can duplicate.
It is not that the public expectations of having a winning team are especially high – until fairly recently it was part of the national round that the team lost much more often – but that he must be seen to conduct himself and orchestrate his team in a certain way. This has never altered.
Along Cook's way there will be something sent to examine him which is not directly connected to his strategic stewardship of the team. Perennially, there is. The list is endless, involving as it does of reasonably recent vintage, assignations with barmaids, trips to the theatre, dirt in the pocket, ball-tampering, bribery and high-maintenance stars.
Always something there to remind them that the cricket may be only part of it. Tactical skills help but leadership credentials count for more. The combination is what can turn a team of moderate talent into something else.
Cook is endlessly patient and controlled – as his long, patient and controlled innings as an opening batsman for England over the last six years have shown. He comes to the job at a good age, 27, with deep experience – 83 Test matches – and a formidable record of 6,555 runs at an average of 47.85.
Whether he is the leader or the statesman that his immediate predecessor was is uncertain. Few others have been. Strauss was almost unequalled in eliciting unfettered loyalty and respect from his team. Cook is liked and likeable. His one-day tenure of 30 matches in all so far does not suggest a tactical mastermind at work but he is beginning to offer more than doing it by numbers. It is, as many of his forerunners have said, how he persuades his players that he is their man.
He tangles his words, both in team and press briefings, perhaps because his thoughts are racing ahead of his speech. But he has the ability to detach himself from the fray.
This much is evident from his comportment at the crease, where he drifts off between balls before getting down to business again, and from the time between matches he spends down on the farm – his wife is a farmer's daughter – where cricket does not enter his thoughts in the lambing shed.
As captain, all that will be more difficult in future. However, a crucial facet of Cook's character could be gleaned from the one-day side. When he replaced Strauss after years out of the team, serious doubts were expressed about his proficiency.
Cook responded with four hundreds and 10 wins in a row this year (until Tuesday night). He has bloody-mindedness in spades. It may be the key to it all.
Swann rested for ODI finale
Graeme Swann has been rested for the last three matches of the current ODI series, with Kent's James Tredwell called up as cover.
Swann, 33, is one of a handful of England players who feature in all three formats so the England and Wales Cricket Board is keen to manage his workload.
The Nottinghamshire off-spinner, who has a long-term right elbow problem, will come back for the three-game T20 series against South Africa.
Open opportunity: Who can step up?
His name as the next opener has been most frequently trotted out, so to speak. But he has not been in peak form lately – Trott's average this year is 37 – and there is a reason he has not opened in his career so far.
Technically the most proficient of all England's batsmen and could cope with the new ball. But, with two inexperienced men probably in the middle order, he may be needed for essential duties there.
His indifferent season certainly tells against him, though the Hampshire man has been on the fringes for a long time. Made one Test appearance so far, against Bangladesh in 2010, but his time may have gone.
Everybody says he has the right stuff but does he have it now? Is he ready for what India will bring this autumn? Only 21, has made three hundreds this summer, including one for England Lions. A hunch maybe but they have to start somewhere. Roots can blossom.
Has not opened much recently but has had a cracking season for Somerset and did the job for the Lions last month, as last summer, presumably with an eye on the future, did James Taylor, who made a resolute 76 at Derby.
'A long legacy': Cricket's reaction
"His calmness and authority when dealing with some of the most difficult moments in our sport in recent times should be applauded."
ECB chief executive David Collier
"To captain a side that has gone to No 1 in the world, beaten the Australians in Australia, and has been part of the 2005 Ashes win, that's a long legacy."
"Awesome guy, great leader, dependable batsman and a solid 1 slip catcher. Cheers Straussy you'll be playing scratch golf within a year."
"Really sad to hear Straussy has called it a day. He's done so much for this England team not just as captain but also as a player."
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