There was something very corporate about the change-over from Andrew Strauss to Alastair Cook yesterday. All the participants- both captains were flanked by Hugh Morris, the Managing Director of England cricket- were dressed the same in charcoal grey suits with England logo, white shirts and red tie. And on the topics that carried relevance for all, which principally involved Kevin Pietersen, they parroted the same line, that discussions needed to take place and that they would do so behind closed doors.
It felt like an internal boardroom shuffle, and not a very controversial one at that. Cook has been identified for some time as the natural successor to Andrew Strauss. He captained the team in Bangladesh in Strauss’s absence, and a perfectly good job he did, too, winning, scoring runs and behaving impeccably. He has led England in one-day cricket since Strauss’s retirement from that form of the game and, again, he has done a very capable
So there was no reason to be surprised at the swiftness of his appointment. After a suitable time reflecting on Strauss’s very significant achievements, the questions turned to Cook and the future. That is the nature of sport: one minute you are the man; the next you are contemplating the rest of your life on a golf course. One minute you are vice-captain, riding along happily with next to no responsibility; the next you must make decisions, and with them the gnawing feeling and nagging doubt that you might just mess things up.
There is every reason to suspect that Cook will do just fine. He is the safe choice; the corporate choice who will not damage the brand- which is not to say that an opportunity was not missed yesterday. It was an opportunity, perhaps, for the ECB to have sounded out some other players, to have taken note of the more maverick tendencies in the team.
The last time they appointed from within, when Peter Moores was given Duncan Fletcher’s job, it proved to be misguided. When Alec Stewart resigned from the England captaincy, the ECB were surprised when Nasser Hussain, previously thought to be from the Pietersen School of selfishness, performed well at interview, prior to becoming a fine England captain himself. It is foolish to ignore the varied options in front of you.
It is the modern way, founded on good business principles, to identify a successor a long way out but that doesn’t mean it is the right way for cricket or for sport. When Cook was identified as Strauss’s successor two years ago, other players were two years less mature. Who knows what Matt Prior, example, would say now when asked about his thoughts on leadership, something he gave a nod to in his newspaper column last week, in response to some random thoughts in these pages; or Jimmy Anderson, or Graeme Swann, or Stuart Broad, for that matter?
Still, Cook it is and the issues in his in-tray look fairly straightforward to identify, if not to sort out. There are three, principally: what to do with Pietersen; identifying an opening partner to replace the man who Cook has walked out to bat with throughout most of his England career, and re-establishing England as a force in Test cricket. The last may be a longer process than the first two- depending on the resolution to the first of those issues- despite Cook’s assertion yesterday that he inherits a team in fine fettle.
To Pietersen first. For all the talk of negotiations occurring behind closed doors and issues to be resolved, Strauss’s retirement does create an opportunity for Cook to show some leadership. It would be easy to stay in thrall to the notion of ‘trust and mutual respect’, harder to acknowledge that matches are won by great players and good teams are populated by them, too, even if they cause a few headaches along the way.
This is an opportunity for Cook to bring Pietersen back into the fold, against the wishes of some senior players, who might feel doubly betrayed now that Strauss has gone, but one that nevertheless must be grasped. When you realise as a captain that the wins and losses go against your name, it makes you more willling to appreciate the match-winning tendencies of players like Pietersen, and Cook’s chances in India would be enhanced by having England’s best player there.
The options for an opening partnership are varied. The selectors could plump for the best young opener who has been identified as a possible replacement for Strauss some time ago. That is the Yorkshire batsman, Joe Root, admired enormously by Graham Thorpe, who is charged with identifying the best of the next generation of players. Root, from Sheffield, is a player in a similar mould to the last man from Sheffield to make an impact as an England batsman, Michael Vaughan. Good pedigree.
But there are other options from within the team. Either Ian Bell, now opening in one-day cricket with Cook, or Jonathan Trott could be promoted to opener (with whoever is left behind, occupying the position at first drop) which would free up one position within the middle order, where much of the greatest batting talent within England lies. By this creative accountancy, it may be possible to fit all of Pietersen, Eoin Morgan and Jonny Bairstow into the middle order, with the mouth-watering possibilities that entails.
Finally, Cook must move quickly to establish the same levels of hard work and achievement that characterised almost all of Strauss’s years of leadership. Strauss may have begun his captaincy amongst discord, and ended that way, but in between he helped create a level of consistent performance and fellowship not often seen in England teams of the recent past.
When he took over, in the aftermath of the fall-out between Moores and Pietersen, few felt the divisions could be healed so quickly. Through a bit of plain talk and common sense, by urging the players to take greater responsibility for their actions, Strauss did just that. That is the task before Cook now.