Top captains in numbers… but not necessarily in their rankings!

As Alastair Cook surpasses Michael Atherton as England’s most-capped skipper, Derek Pringle identifies the key similarities between the pair

Amid the fanfare of centuries and Stuart Broad’s 100th Test in Rajkot, it was almost forgotten that the opening Test against India was also Alastair Cook’s 55th as England captain, a record for his country that he takes off Michael Atherton.

Cook assumed the Test captaincy from Andrew Strauss just over four years ago, and promptly earned rave reviews with a series win in India, something that had eluded England teams for 28 years. It has not gone so swimmingly since and he recently admitted that, but for the persuasion of his wife Alice, he would have quit during the personal nadir he suffered in 2014.

The uncertainty remains and recently a story appeared that he might call it a day at the conclusion of the current five-Test series against India, but playing on as an opener. Returning to the ranks never seems to last long for former captains and he has since played the story down.

It is ironic that he and Atherton, neither of them natural leaders of men, should be the two who head the list of those who have captained England on most occasions. For one thing both are opening batsmen, a role notorious for being inward-looking in its demands. Yes, you can score brownie points when the batting goes well and everyone lauds you for leading by example, but the pressure is ramped up to breaking point when things go badly. Then, the instinct is to blame the captaincy for dragging your batting down, something Cook appears to be doing now with his talk of stepping down from the bridge.

The pair are similar in other respects too, the prime one being the possession of a particularly stubborn streak. Nobody wants a captain who bends to please critics, but neither do you want one who sticks with an ailing tactic or point of view just to prove them wrong, something of which both Cook and Atherton have been guilty.

Tactically, neither man can claim to be a talented strategist, though if you possess a fine bowling attack, as Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss did, you don’t really need to be.

Atherton had some decent bowlers in Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick and Dominic Cork, but he lacked the delicate man-management touch to get the best from them, the sensitive Caddick especially.

My theory, that as much as county cricket and its feudal values fed into Atherton’s style of captaincy, so too did his time playing for Cambridge University. There, you were never expected to beat a county so there was no compunction to pick the best players, just the best blokes. Some of his England teams felt as if they’d had the same principle applied to them.

Cook appears to have enjoyed a closer relationship with his players, Kevin Pietersen excepted, though that is perhaps inevitable with central contracts enabling the team to retain the intimacy of a county side. In Atherton’s day, those selected for England would arrive at the Test venue for Tuesday lunch and nets, practise again on Wednesday, and then into the Test Thursday morning. At all other times, county duty called.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 11:  Alastair Cook of England bats during day one of the 4th Investec Test between England and Pakistan at The Kia Oval on August 11, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

Central contracts were a luxury not afforded Atherton (they were introduced two and half years after he resigned as England captain), but had he benefitted from them then his modest win total, 13 from 54, would surely have been better.

Another mitigating factor is that Australia possessed one of the greatest sides in history during Atherton’s tenure as captain. They alone accounted for nine of the 20 defeats suffered by his England team, though that side was never whitewashed, a fate that befell Cook’s men last time England toured there.

The relationship Atherton and Cook had with their first coaches also affected the dynamics of their leadership. Atherton’s early years as captain saw Ray Illingworth installed as England supremo. Despite the pair’s shared northern roots, it was a relationship steeped in distrust – Illingworth seeing Atherton as a spoilt university graduate who’d experienced little of real life, and Atherton viewing Illingworth as a gossipy, spiteful Yorkshireman, too close to the press.

It ended in acrimony after three years with Atherton surviving to lead for another nine months before he too resigned, in 1998.

Cook’s principal relationship with a coach was with Andy Flower, whom he inherited from Andrew Strauss. When Cook first took over England’s one-day captaincy, it looked like he might be an interesting tactician, judging from the way he tried to make things happen in a format where stasis can so often be beneficial.

Whether he had lost heart by the time he became Test captain, or whether it was Flower’s influence, he quickly became son of Strauss and the purveyor of a distinctly conservative type of captaincy. That ‘safety first’ rigidity has been diluted under Trevor Bayliss, the current coach, but a cricketing Bobby Fischer he ain’t.

Decent men both, Cook and Atherton were undoubtedly served in the amount of Tests they captained by the fact that there were few credible alternatives. Alec Stewart was a contender when Atherton was first appointed, which sparked an ‘oik versus toff’ debate in some newspaper leader columns.

Stewart eventually took over from him in 1998, his time in charge lasting just over a year before he made way for Nasser Hussain, arguably England’s best captain of the past 30 years, at least for squeezing the best from his resources.

Rivals for Cook, who was groomed as Strauss’ successor very early in the piece, have been even thinner on the ground, until now, when Joe Root is the natural successor. Ian Bell was touted, briefly, as a possible replacement, but apart from him and Stuart Broad, who was made England T20 captain when Cook was dumped from the squad, there have been no others during his times of crisis unless you count the experienced but shy James Anderson.

Having got to 55 Tests as skipper, Cook should really look to get into the mid-60s before handing over to Root. Knowing Atherton and Hussain pretty well, and seeing how all-consuming the job became for them, and how it eventually distorted who they were, I have sympathy for Cook wanting to return to a simpler life.

But he’s got the hang of it now and surely he wants a crack at trying to win in Australia next winter – the ultimate challenge for any England captain and one only four have managed to achieve since Bodyline series that was 84 years ago.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, November 11 2016

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