Upwardly mobile Cook must aim for twin peaks
England captain will need all his mental strength to win Tests and ODIs
England are the best one-day team in the world again. Their jubilation at this renewal of their status was restrained, if it ever started, and was consumed by their sheer relief at beating South Africa for the first time this summer in the third one-day international.
The fourth match is played today at Lord's and if England can prevail again they will have reason to believe that they are going places. The place they have in mind, of course, is not the top of the ICC world rankings, which in one-day terms are negligible.
They are a way of passing the time, and a full house at The Oval on Friday night was almost certainly blissfully unaware of what was at stake despite being rapt during an extremely dull contest in which there were too few runs and which was enlivened but briefly by Eoin Morgan's marvellous intervention of 73 from 67 balls.
What England are aiming at in 50-overs cricket, what every side is planning for, is the Champions Trophy in this country next year and, more pertinently still, the World Cup in Australia in 2015. These are the big prizes in one-day international cricket and every other match played is preparation for them.
By now, England will be thinking they have a chance in both. Under Alastair Cook this has been a good year. They have won 11 of the 13 matches they have played so far, with only one loss, and if they can somehow win the remaining two, real progress will have been made.
This is likely to be halted in its tracks when they play India in seven matches early next year, but in a sense that series is irrelevant. Watched by billions it may be, but the pitches there and the type of cricket necessary to compete are utterly unconnected to the conditions to be encountered in the next two major tournaments.
Cook's life changed for ever last week when he was appointed to succeed Andrew Strauss as England's Test captain. It will be fascinating to watch him cope now with juggling the balls.
Without displaying the attributes of a strategically cunning genius, he has been largely impressive as a one-day captain in his 31 matches, contributing heavy runs and changing his fields with ever greater purpose. But to a large extent he has been able to switch off in the Test matches, concentrating purely on scoring runs.
Not any longer. Cook is responsible for both teams, and giving equal weight to each will be extremely difficult. No, it will be impossible. Plotting England's return to the No 1 spot in the ICC Test rankings – which really do count – not to mention triumphing in two Ashes series, will take precedence above all else.
This is not to say that Test cricket is more important, though that may be so. It is simply the way it works in a captain's mind. As yet, this will not have quite sunk in. Everybody assumes that Cook will follow Strauss's template. Maybe, maybe not. He respected and admired Strauss but he has to be his own man with his own ideas, otherwise he may as well be linked up to his predecessor on the pitch.
Those who know Cook also know of his strength of mind, which is why he is such a dogged opening batsman. He will certainly know what he wants to do for England.
For now, he has South Africa on his hands. The tourists still look the superior team, but after Friday they have suddenly become beatable.
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