The Ashes: Andy Flower singles out the 'outstanding' captaincy of Alastair Cook

Leadership skills were lambasted by Shane Warne but the quiet man at the helm for England had three tricks up his sleeve

The fourth Test match was drifting away from England. Alastair Cook, the captain, hardly seemed to be doing much. Australia were rattling along at four runs an over.

Occasionally, Cook scratched his nose and took off his cap to rub his hands through his jet-black hair but that was as emotional as it got. The field settings seemed blandly defensive, the bowlers were uninspired, the packed crowd at Durham ICG were strangely detached.

Of runs there were plenty and of wickets there were none. Something needed to happen or it would be 2-1 in the series and the retention of the Ashes would look decidedly hollow if it then became 2-2 at The Oval. Cook, chiselled jaw and sculpted cheeks, was about as impassive, calm and handsome as Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was to transpire that he had some of Atticus Finch's wisdom too. In pretty quick succession when action was vitally needed, Cook acted by doing three things. Without them, England would not have gone 3-0 ahead in the series with an opportunity to win four matches in a home Ashes series for the first time.

The first came at tea when Australia were 120 for 1, 179 short of their target. Cook spoke to his players. The details of what he said have not been revealed. But it was quietly spoken, firm and, like all winning generals, probably came down to asking his charges to pull their fingers out.

Stuart Broad, the fast bowler who took 6 for 50 in a blaze of high-velocity glory, said the bowlers were told to "spice it up a bit". They changed their lengths and bowled with more venom. Broad finished with match figures of 11 for 121, the best by an England fast bowler in the Ashes since Fred Trueman took 11 for 88 at Headingley in 1961. Cook assisted them crucially.

"I was present in the dressing room at the time but, to be quite frank, this is one of those instances where we don't talk about what we said," said Andy Flower, the England coach. "I won't talk in any detail about it but in those sorts of situations at 120 for 1, those are the instances where you need strong and decisive leadership and Cook showed that."

Cook's second sage intervention came when Australia had reached 168 for 2. Significantly, Graeme Swann had taken the first two wickets. He had operated from the Finchale End, which takes its name from the old monastery nearby, for 14 overs on the trot. The ball was turning.

Swann might win it for England. Cook took him off and asked Tim Bresnan to bowl. It seemed perverse. Had it failed, Cook might have been advised to seek sanctuary in Finchale. With his fourth ball, Bresnan spiced it up. It reared like a spitting cobra at David Warner, who was winning it on his own with a vigorous and composed 71. The edge went to Matt Prior for his 15th catch of the series.

"At 140 for 1 they had played really well but I thought our guys held their nerve well and tinkered a little," said Flower. "We created pressure and chances. Cook made a good decision to bring Bresnan on." Good? It was inspired, and he was not done yet.

The third machination five overs later probably changed the course of the match, the series and Cook's stewardship. He installed a leg slip for Broad bowling to Michael Clarke.

It has become a newly fashionable position this summer, and it was designed to instil a doubt in Clarke's mind. He was meant to think about the leg slip and what ball Broad might purvey to force him into hitting it there. Instead, Broad bowled a length ball which hit the seam and jagged away with Clarke's feet virtually static on the crease as he reached out with his bat. The ball trimmed off stump.

 

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Before these ploys, indeed while they were being enacted, Cook was getting it in the neck from Shane Warne for his unexciting captaincy. When advice from the dressing room was passed on by the 12th man, Warne tweeted that it was like the Under-10s. But it was sound coaching. Having a team of coaches and analysts without using them would be like having a dog and barking yourself.

Cook is not the finished article as a captain and compared to his counterpart Clarke this summer he has often seemed to be reactive rather than proactive. But Test captaincy is frequently about letting plans come to fruition, not tinkering too soon. It is more often than not about knowing when to intercede. Cook showed on Monday what he was about.

Starting with two Tests in Bangladesh in 2010, Cook has led England in 15 Tests. Of the 25 men who have done the job that often, only Cook and Douglas Jardine have won 60 per cent of games - ahead of Mike Brearley, Percy Chapman, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss. England have been unbeaten in 12 Tests.

Discussing how England have reached this point where the Ashes have been won three times in succession, Flower paid tribute to his two leaders, Cook and his predecessor, Andrew Strauss. "One of the keys has been the couple of outstanding captains we have had," he said.

"A captain in a cricket team is a very important position. They are making constant decisions out in the middle. When they speak in the dressing room they have to be strong and clear, sometimes showing empathy, sometimes showing real strength or even stubbornness. In Strauss and Cook I think English cricket has been very lucky to have had, and still have in Cook, two outstanding leaders."

At which Cook, happy as a sandboy later, would have done something expansive like rub his nose or remove his cap and ruffle his hair.

Making your marks: How England have rated in winning the Ashes

Ian Bell, 500 runs, average 71.43

At 31, he has come of age, achieving all that was long ago predicted for him. It has been an undiluted pleasure to watch his three centuries, all impeccably executed under intense pressure. And that cover drive...

Mark out of 10 9

James Anderson, 17 wkts at 31.12

Since the pyrotechnics of the first Test he has been more subdued, taking only seven more wickets. His legs look weary, the snap has deserted him. But his bowling intelligence remains important. England must look after him.

Mark out of 10 7

Matt Prior, 86 runs at 14.33

He earns an extra mark for past services, for his keeping and general factotum qualities. For once his aggression has been a liability. The worry is that it may affect his glovework, which has been largely tidy and at times spectacular.

Mark out of 10 5

Joe Root, 260 runs at 37.14, 3 wkts at 11.33

The tyro is finding out what a tough game it is. He has made only one major contribution, at Lord's, and his tendency to hang back in the crease has exposed him. The Ashes is a tough apprenticeship.

Mark out of 10 6

Jonny Bairstow, 203 runs at 29.00

Never out in single figures, he has yet to make more than 67. Questions can be asked about method and mindset. Only 23, he has time to mature but England need a more stolid figure coming in at No 6.

Mark out of 10 4

Steve Finn, 2 wkts at 58.00

It was thought he would be a significant component but a disappointing first Test, for which he should not have been selected, revealed continuing confusion over his run-up. Has it all as a tall fast bowler but must not miss his peak.

Mark out of 10 4

Kevin Pietersen, 276 runs at 34.50

Apart from a robust hundred at Old Trafford and a determined fifty at Trent Bridge he has not been at his peak, as if his desire to do well handicaps him. He may be overcomplicating his approach.

Mark out of 10 7

Stuart Broad, 170 runs at 28.33, 17 wkts at 25.47

That spell on Monday will be talked of as long as the Ashes are played. It had pace, rhythm and penetration. He is that kind of bowler - overlook the quiet patches. And his batting has made a welcome return.

Mark out of 10 8

Jonathan Trott, 194 runs at 24.25

Good news and bad news: he has never scored runs quicker in Tests but never made fewer of them. Occasionally unlucky, Australia discomfited him by forcing him on to the back foot with an updated leg theory.

Mark out of 10 5

Alastair Cook, 218 runs at 27.25

Nowhere near as prodigious as he was in Australia three years ago but there was no chance he would be. Australia have worked him out a little; he must work them out back. But in a series of slender margins he has led England to 3-0.

Mark out of 10 7

Tim Bresnan, 103 runs at 25.75, 10 wkts at 29.60

Someone has to be the most unsung player. Bresilad is it. He can be trusted with ball and bat. Rarely likely to be the star but is always making his presence felt. Many of his contributions have been key.

Mark out of 10 7

Graeme Swann, 92 runs at 23.00, 23 wkts at 27.00

Australia planned to tuck into Swann. By and large he has seen them coming. Some uncommonly poor balls have been overwhelmed by cunning and perseverance. He must work at his slip catching.

Mark out of 10 8

Aussies weigh up rule change to woo Robson

As the fallout from Ashes defeat continues, Cricket Australia is considering a rule change that would allow players with dual passports, such as prolific Middlesex batsman Sam Robson, to return to the Australian system.

Robson - who was born in Sydney - is not allowed to play in Australian grade cricket because he is registered on a British passport with Middlesex but has since been sounded out over a potential call-up.

Ed Aarons

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