The Ashes 2013-14: Alastair Cook looks to rookie Scott Borthwick for twist in the tale
Spinner comes from nowhere as three debutants are in frame for final Test
Seventy-nine men have been captain of England. Of the 31 who are still alive most appear to have had something uncomplimentary to say about Alastair Cook's leadership in the last few days. By all accounts the other 47 have been turning in their graves.
Cook, like any other poor sap who takes the job, will never be short of advice from illustrious predecessors. Some of them have won as many games as he has. There are at least nine in town at present, seven of them in media roles. The gathering on the pitch before any Test match could be mistaken for a former captains' convention.
Every time Cook changes his field (or does not change it) or brings someone on to bowl (or does not bring someone on to bowl) there is inevitably some former captain who would have done it differently. When a side are losing an Ashes series 4-0 and playing with the gumption of George Formby, everyone would have done it differently.
Cook is aware he might not have got everything right in this series. There are things he would have done differently if he had them to do again. "I do need to continually look to improve, without a doubt," he said after England finished a training session at the SCG which consisted entirely of fielding and fitness drills. "It would be very wrong of me not to do so and I've always said it.
"There's never a fine art to captaincy, there are always people outside with different ideas as to what we should be doing, but you only have to look at the other side. Michael Clarke was getting a lot of stick when Australia were losing 4-0 in India, with people saying he wasn't a good captain, but suddenly he's winning games of cricket and he's the world's best captain. So that's the world we live in and we appreciate that."
Cook is now captain of an England side through which revolution is about to sweep. Although the old stalwarts will stay for the foreseeable future, it seems there could be as many as three debutants in the fifth and final Test which starts at the SCG on Friday.
One of them is Scott Borthwick, the Durham leg-spinner who was never remotely near the original squad. He is almost certain to play because Monty Panesar has picked up a calf strain.
Gary Ballance, the Zimbabwe-born Yorkshire batsman, is also highly likely to play, though whom he replaces is open to conjecture. Michael Carberry may make way, with Joe Root resuming his opener's role (he will then have batted at three positions in the series) and Ian Bell moving to three at long last.
Boyd Rankin, the giant Irish pace bowler, could be given an opportunity in place of Tim Bresnan, whose stock has fallen quicker than a stock market crash.
Borthwick would be the biggest gamble, almost to the point of being unfair. He is a splendid 23-year-old who played a full part in Durham's estimable Championship win last season, though mostly as a batsman. He bowled only 43 overs in his eight matches at the county's Riverside home, and more than 10 overs in an innings only 10 times.
Australia, as their vice-captain Brad Haddin indicated almost with a sneer, will come out slugging against Borthwick. The potential damage inflicted may be greater than the prospective rewards. The last England spinner to make his debut was Simon Kerrigan, at The Oval against Australia in the final Test of last summer, and he was so patently unready for the big time that it was embarrassing for him and those watching.
However, Borthwick, who has been playing grade cricket for Northern Districts in Sydney, has been blessed by the retired Graeme Swann as his successor and looked completely at ease in answering questions about what might be to come. It is just that Australia's batsmen might be asking harder ones.
This is the sixth Test series in which Cook has led England. He has won four and drawn one of the previous five. His captaincy has never been based on tactical inspiration or shrewdness; his natural leadership skills stem from the fact that he is patently a decent chap.
However, it would be a mistake to assume he is a pushover who is incapable of dishing out the hair-dryer treatment. "There's always times when you need to use it and there's always times when you need to be sympathetic too," he said. "That balance is the answer to being a good leader. I hope I can be firm enough with the troops when I need to be."
Part of the trouble, apart from any perceived strategic shortcomings, is that Cook is patently learning on the job. He has never led his county, Essex, in a first-class match.
Cook's reactive style, his apparent reluctance to take the plunge and readiness to conduct proceedings according to some pre-ordained plan as opposed to dealing with events as they unfold, have all attracted comment. But this is also the same captain who led England to their first win in India for 24 years and won a home Ashes series 3-0 four months ago.
"You get flak when you lose games of cricket, whatever you do, and we've lost four in a row," he said. "Again, when you're winning in India that flak doesn't come and that is the nature of the thing. That's what happens.
"I do think that I'm better because I've done the job for longer. You only really learn on this job no matter how many times you talk about it to people outside the game. The only way you really learn is when you're out there."
The revolution, which starts on Friday and will continue in England come the summer as they seek redemption, is not likely to be in the realms of a coup. Cook would not countenance the idea of the classy old campaigners being thanked for their services.
"That's a very big call," he said. "There's still a lot of cricket left in those guys and you only have to look at two players who have played very well for Australia here in Chris Rogers and Brad Haddin and they're delivering the goods at 36 years old. So experience can still be a good thing." It is time for experience to do the business again.
Fifth Test details
Australia C J L Rogers, D A Warner, S R Watson, M J Clarke (capt), S P D Smith, G J Bailey, B J Haddin (wkt), M G Johnson, R J Harris, P M Siddle, N M Lyon.
England A N Cook (capt), J E Root, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, G S Ballance, B A Stokes, J M Bairstow (wkt), S G Borthwick, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, W B Rankin.
Umpires Aleem Dar (Pak) and M Erasmus (SA)
Pitch report Likely to be a capricious strip which changes as the match wears on. May start green and improve for batting.
TV Sky Sports 2, 10.30pm
Weather forecast Dry and overcast, with intermittent sun later. Max temp: 25C
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