By Peter Hayter
WHATEVER Michael Vaughan, Graeme Swann, Geoffrey Boycott or Kevin Pietersen think, those who really matter in the debate over Alastair Cook’s place in England’s ODI plans have spoken.
James Whitaker and his fellow selectors not only backed Cook to lead them in the upcoming series in Sri Lanka but also took the dramatic, if not wholly unexpected, step of confirming he will lead them through to the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
In case anyone didn’t get why Cook deserved such a clanging endorsement, bearing in mind he has led them in five consecutive one-day series defeats (3-1 to India, 3-2 to Sri Lanka, 4-1 and 2-1 to Australia and 2-1 to New Zealand) and has failed to score 80 in an innings for two years, Whitaker spelled out why he thinks his captain will prove the doubters wrong.
“It was very apparent, very soon that all the selectors are 100 per cent behind Cook as leader of this team,” explained the National Selector.
“Leadership is unique and it takes time to develop. We believe Alastair still has the skills and the drive and enthusiasm, which are all great qualities, to instil the right direction and control of the players.
“He’s fully respected within the group and, more than anything, we believe he is a very constant person. The highs and lows he’s had over the last 12 months…it takes a unique sense of will to come through that.
“To keep getting up when you’re knocked constantly and to show a degree of humbleness when you’re doing well is unique in any leadership.
“We believe we have a unique leader and a unique person and that should not be underestimated. There is a lot that goes into being a good leader that is unseen. And he is an exceptional person in that circumstance of leadership.
“Everyone has an opinion on tactics. Alastair is learning still, of course, and doesn’t always get it right. But he gets it right a lot. He has some good senior players who can help him and advise him. But we still believe he will get it right the majority of the time.”
All very true and Cook’s “unique” qualities should not be ignored, no matter how many times Whitaker felt he needed to try out his new favourite word. But it is within one further quote that lies the reason so many believe that, without a huge shift in thinking and approach, Cook cannot and will not lead England to the World Cup win they have sought in vain since the inaugural tournament was contested back in 1975, 39 long years ago.
“We need a base and Alastair, batting at No.1, can create that base. If he can concentrate working hard on his game –which we believe he is capable of doing – he can form the partnership at the top of the order that give us a good chance of winning games of one-day cricket.”
In other words, no matter that it has proven hopelessly ineffective and outdated, the safety-first game plan that has resulted in England making 300 just once in their last 14 ODIs, and that one, against West Indies at the Sir Vivian Richards Ground back in March while Cook was resting, remains their best chance of success against sides who now target 320 as just about par.
The good news for Cook’s supporters and for England, however, is that it doesn’t have to be this way and the clues to why lie in the three most eye-catching innings he has played since and including his last ODI century, back in June 2012.
The most recent was against Australia, at the WACA, back in January, when Cook hit 44 from 43 balls at a strike rate of 102.33, kick-starting the innings towards its total of 316-8 and victory by 57 runs, the beleagured Poms’ only win of that five-match series and, indeed, of the whole horrid Ashes debacle.
You have to go back 26 ODIs for the next, when, against New Zealand in the ICC Champions Trophy match at Cardiff last June, Cook bashed 64 from 47 deliveries, including, glory be, two sixes, at a strike rate of 136.17, setting up a ten-run win.
And, finally, 39 games ago, to the last time Cook reached three figures for England in white ball cricket, against West Indies at The Oval in June 2012, when he hit 112 from 120 balls with 13 fours and six at 93.33 in another impressive victory.
It was his third ODI ton in six innings, following scores of 137 at 96.48 and 102 at 84.3 against Pakistan in the UAE, England wining both of those games too. The point of these stats being that Cook has always been capable of making runs at a tempo which sets the tone for a big total – and that, by the way, is the role his former teammate Pietersen believes he should have been allowed to play all along –and in that regard, the knock against the Kiwis at the Swalec is worth another look.
His scoring rate in that match was of the magnitude normally associated with t20 cricket and the reason for that is that rain had reduced the match to 24 overs per side. No time to think about keeping overs in hand or building a “base” for big-hitters to come, but crash, bang, wallop, get on with it or get out.
Whatever Cook’s qualities as leader, whatever he does behind the scenes and however humble he has been through the good times and bad of his recent travails at Test level, the debate over whether he should be England’s World Cup captain has only ever been about his runs and how quickly he scores them.
So here’s a thought: forget about asking him to make sure England don’t lose early wickets, an exercise in negative thinking that so often ends in a whimper not a bang, but let him loose and cut him free. Just because that is the kind of thing they want from Alex Hales, why not see if Cook can provide it as well?
When dismissing talk of him quitting at the start of this month, Cook himself described the idea of England winning the World Cup as “ a bit far-fetched”.
The way England and Cook have been playing this form of the game in recent months, it certainly is. So why not try another way? What have they and he got to lose?
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