Cook’s recipe for greatness

It was Walter Winterbottom, the former England football manager, who nailed most succinctly the difference between talent and skill. Talent, he suggested, was the ability to do the things that most footballers should be able to do: pass the ball, shoot, dribble, tackle and any other activities that passed for the daily rate. Skill, though, was trying to do those things when ‘someone is trying to boot you up the arse.’

What Winterbottom was talking about, when you really think about it, was both temperament and achievement. The ability to transfer born-with talent into something more meaningful and more lasting, the kind of achievement that has to be worked for and sweat for and sometimes even dropped for. It is this kind of achievement, rather than any notion of pure natural talent, that Andy Flower, a modern-day Winterbottom, is looking for.

English sport is obsessed with the talent myth. Those who possess exceptional gifts poorly exploited are the subject of far more curiosity than the modestly endowed who achieve time and time again. It is an understandable fascination, since failure is often more interesting than success, but it misses the point entirely. In sport it is achievement not talent that matters. Just ask Alastair Cook. Or Paul Collingwood for that matter.

Both these players are at the opposite end of the sporting spectrum. Cook is in the form of his life, batting with such sublime freedom and ease of movement, that he has scored more runs on an Australian tour than any other Englishman in history bar one. He is on a journey that may, just may, end with him breaking all run-scoring records for England. After all, he is just 26 years of age and he already has sixteen Test hundreds to his name.

Collingwood is at the end as a Test player. He decided to pull the plug on his Test career before the start of the fourth day in order to go out on his own terms and on the grandest of occasions. Even though, on a personal level, his career ended with a shortage of runs, he retires from Tests knowing that he has achieved a substantial amount.

Both have something in common: both have been regarded as moderately talented players who have achieved more than or to the limit of their abilities. Batsmen are often split into roundheads and cavaliers: the natural assumption is that cavaliers are more talented and Cook has always been regarded as a roundhead. Collingwood, for his part, acknowledged his limited gifts implicitly when on the eve of this Test he laid out his legacy: ‘if, at the start of my career, someone had offered me three Ashes series wins and ten Test hundreds I would have bitten their hands off.’

It was an unlikely source who forced us to re-evaluate the nature of their talent at the end of the second day here in Sydney. James Anderson  is paid for bowling and since he is bowling better in Australia than any English quick bowler in recent memory, no criticism of him should be inferred when I say that an Anderson press conference is rarely a place where column material can be found. But he surpassed himself this time when he suggested that Cook was more talented than Kevin Pietersen who for so long has been regarded as the most gifted player of this and many other a generation.

Anderson’s analysis could have been born out of mate-ship [he and Cook are particularly close] or the absolute admiration a fast bowler feels for a good blocker like Cook. The last thing a foot-weary fast bowler wants to see is an ego-maniac giving his wicket away on a whim when a doze on the couch is calling. Cook has given his fellow bowlers plenty of rest on this tour.

But Anderson’s analysis is shrewd in another sense, because it suggests that talent comes in many shapes and sizes. For sure, there is the talent to do outrageous things, such as the shots that Pietersen plays on a day by day basis. But have we have seen on numerous occasions with him- Jamaica and Edgbaston (against South Africa) readily spring to mind- that outrageous talent can be costly, too. The kind of talent that is at the heart of a good team, suggests Anderson, is not the one-off eye-catching stroke, or the occasional wonder ball, but the ability to reproduce a performance time and time again in a variety of conditions and under testing circumstances.

When Collingwood is finally sent to pasture, he can rest easy in the knowledge that he has managed to fathom out some of the more difficult aspects of a professional sportsman’s life. The ability to give the whole of himself on every single day that England have played and trained is a talent in itself, especially when you consider how much of a rabble England were here four years ago under the leadership of an incomparably more gifted all-rounder. His role in England’s revival, his ability to provide the nuts and bolts that hold things together, has been under-estimated.

Cook’s special talents, too, have become obvious under the Australian sun. The talent to recover from career-threatening technical malfunctions; the talent to concentrate; the talent to be greedy for runs when you have already scored more than enough for most men; the talent to keep your ego in check, so that you maintain the same disciplines that carried you far into the sunny uplands in the first match of the series. The talent, in other words, to work out exactly what your talents are.

Whether the Ashes 2009 become known as Cook’s Ashes, in the way of Botham’s Ashes, or Flintoff’s Ashes remains doubtful because English sport is often infatuated to a ridiculous degree with ‘characters’ and ‘personalities’. Cook is neither, although he has character in abundance, but it is achievement that counts and his achievements in this series bear comparison with the best that England have had to offer in this historic contest. By his deeds and not his words shall we know him.

For too long, the notion of the ‘lost talent’ has been allowed credence. Certainly there are cases where a talent might not be fulfilled because of a tragedy of one kind or another. We shall never know how far Ben Hollioake’s special talent would have carried him but for a rainy night, a slippery corner and a fast car. If Mohammad Amir never plays Test cricket again, that would be a tragic waste of talent, albeit of an entirely self-inflicted kind.

But there is less sympathy for those so called ‘wasted talents’ who were given opportunities in abundance. Those who would flatter to deceive with an eye-catching stroke or brilliant delivery that would bring forth the promise of greatness, only to be followed sooner or later by the inevitable ‘if only.’

England’s success in Australia has been based not, as Winterbottom would have expressed it, on talent but on skill. It is an achievement formulated around many different notions of talent, but as much around the nature of Cook’s and Collingwood’s as that of the supremely gifted Pietersen. As a fellow Times’ scribe said to me yesterday as we watched Cook grind remorselessly on: talent talks; achievement walks.