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Cricket: Alastair Cook - leading edge

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Cricket: Alastair Cook - leading edge
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That Alastair Cook was to succeed Andrew Strauss as captain of the England Test team has been an open secret for some time; he was made vice-captain at the relatively tender age of 24, and has spent the past 18 months preparing for the role as captain of the one-day team.

He took charge of the Test side when Strauss was rested, against Bangladesh in March 2010, and has long been known as a calm, unflappable character whose temperament as an opening batsman has stood up to the toughest attacks in world cricket. Yet, for all that, the man they call Chef has found himself front of house a little sooner than he expected.

“Clearly, when the phone went during the one-day games against South Africa, when I was walking down to a meeting in my flip-flops and pretty much my pyjamas, I did not expect to be walking out of a room a little later having been asked to be England captain,“ Cook told Sport in an exclusive interview before flying to India for his debut series as the full-time Test skipper. “Now, going back and speaking to Straussy since, it has made far more sense to me; his retirement wasn’t a snapshot decision, but something he’d been thinking about for a long period of time. But nobody – neither the team as a whole nor myself as an individual – knew it was coming. It was certainly a shock.“

Really? Could Cook, for so long his captain’s trusted lieutenant, the right-hand man with the classic left-hand drive, genuinely have had no idea that Strauss was about to call it a day? “I think it shows the strength of the man, that he had been thinking about it but continued to lead as well as he ever had, all the time giving no inclination that he was thinking about going,“ says Cook.

“As a captain, you have to be so level the whole time – especially in tough situations, when people around you are looking for clear thought. That just proves to me what a good leader of men he was.“

Strauss may not be on the field against India in Ahmedabad as you read this, but the affection and respect his successor evidently has for him suggest his influence will endure for some time to come.

“I don’t know what he calls me behind closed doors, but I consider him a friend,“ smiles Cook. “He had that amazing balance of being right in the mix of the side, but he was so emotionally strong that he never let his own problems affect the team. He knew how important that was, because people look to you in those difficult situations – and if you’re showing signs of nerves, then that will transfer to the team. He was never distant, but he had an amazing strength of character.

“I’ve spoken to him a lot in the past few weeks, of course, but I think it’s important that I don’t just become a Strauss clone. We are quite similar people, so it might be that I’m not that different from him as a captain – but I still have to do it my way.“

As Cook talks, we find ourselves wondering just what his ’way’ will be like – although it soon becomes apparent that we’re going to have to wait and see for ourselves.

“People always ask me what kind of captain I’m going to be, but that’s probably my least favourite question,“ he explains. “It’s very hard to answer, and it’s almost for other people to define. Decision-makers have looked at me and decided that they see leadership qualities in me; that’s why I’ve been chosen, I suppose, but it’s quite hard for me to talk about that without sounding horrendously arrogant. But people with good opinions have seen something in me, and I think I can take a lot of confidence from that.

“Clearly, though, over the next few months and years – however long it may be – I will learn about the captaincy of Test cricket on the job. Because no matter how many books you read or how many people you talk to, the only way you actually learn captaincy is by doing it. Sitting here now, though, I’d be a lot more nervous about what’s to come if I hadn’t been one-day captain for the past 18 months.“

And quite a spell that has been for the England one-day team. Since being named captain of the one-day side, Cook has led England in 30 of 31 matches (Eoin Morgan took the reins in a game against his native Ireland), winning 18 and losing only nine as the team has risen to the top of the world rankings.

Encouragingly for his new role as Test skipper, Cook’s average with the bat while one-day captain is 46.77 – significantly higher than the 33.00 he averaged while a mere foot soldier. It’s a run of form, both individual and team, to which he refers when we put it to him that a tour in India is about as tough as it gets for a new captain.

“Their home record is obviously very strong,“ he admits. “But if you look back at when I first took over the one-day captaincy, we played Sri Lanka, who had just reached the final of the World Cup, and India, who had won it. But we won both of those series, and even though we lost away in India, we came back this year by beating both the West Indies and Australia. I had a pretty tough start with the one-day captaincy, so we know exactly how tough these next two months are going to be. It’s going to test our resolve as a team – as a different team with a different leader and some different personnel.

"That’s an exciting challenge, but if we are to have any chance of winning over there, then scoring heavy runs in the first innings is going to be vital.“

On that score, it has been pleasing to see Cook and the rest of England’s top-order batsmen – including new opening partner Nick Compton – finding form on the subcontinent pitches that have so often been their undoing in recent times.

The hosts may have kept their frontline spinners largely under wraps in the build-up to this four-Test series, but the tourists have looked in good nick – and none more so than the returning Kevin Pietersen. What, we ask, was Cook’s role in Pietersen’s now infamous ’reintegration’ into the team?

“It’s very important for any captain in any sport to be at the forefront of decisions, because it’s effectively your side,“ he answers. “Clearly I have to work extremely closely with Andy Flower, so I have been heavily involved in the process – and it was a process we had to get right because it’s hugely important to this England team.

"We all know how important a united side is, because a harmonious side can bring great success. Dysfunctional teams might do well for short spells, but they won’t have success for any long periods of time.

“You are most successful when you’re at your tightest as a unit, and I think that has showed in our success over the past couple of years. It’s important that the process we’re going through now is one we get right – not just with KP, but with everyone in the side.

“But this is a fantastic group, and sometimes what gets reported in the papers is not true. We all know how the media works, and what has happened in the past few months has really pulled the team apart. It has shown that you can’t take team unity for granted – it is something you have to keep working on.“

Despite the recent internal problems, and a year in which both Pakistan and South Africa have exposed the weaknesses in the current England team, Cook inherits a group of players that has known more success than failure in its recent history. He follows on from a line of captains, most notably Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Strauss himself, whose combined efforts have dragged English cricket up from mediocrity to, until recently, the top of the world rankings in Test cricket. But does that bring with it a certain pressure to maintain such high standards?

“There are two ways of looking at it,“ he muses. “You could say that if you were at rock bottom then the only way would be up – but a captain is only as good as the players around him, and I’d much rather be in the position I am now. Whether you consider it luck or not, we have a good group of very talented cricketers – both youngsters and more experienced players – which proves that the English system is producing top-class players.

“I’m lucky that I’m inheriting a side that has been successful. Some might say that’s daunting, but I say it’s a great opportunity to continue that success. Clearly, over the past year or so, we haven’t played the cricket we would have liked – certainly in the Test team. There is always room for improvement, but we’re in good hands with Andy Flower. We have a lot of exciting cricket coming up, and I know that the lads are as keen to get stuck in and meet that challenge head on as I am.

“There’s a great balance to the squad, too. You have three or four players with more than 70 caps, a few with around 50 and some exciting young players coming through. It’s exciting to see that talent mixed in with the senior players; I think we have an opportunity to build another very successful team.“

For Cook personally, there is a nice symmetry in beginning life as the England Test captain in India – the country where his Test career started with a debut century back in 2006 (picture 2).

“To me, this is kind of the start of my second journey as a Test player,“ he reflects. “But it’s a very exciting one. The amount of cricket we have over the next two years is huge, but we have some amazing opportunities to do something very special. I’m not saying we’re definitely going to do that, but as a player you want to play in big games – and for me to have the opportunity to captain England into such a period is an amazing honour. It’s truly an amazing thing to be sat here talking to you as the England captain.“

The period of which Cook talks begins with the current tour of India, but also comprises home-and-away series against New Zealand and back-to-back Ashes series against the old enemy, Australia. And sandwiched in between next summer’s visits from our Antipodean cousins is the last ever ICC Champions Trophy – something that Cook the one-day captain is keeping a very close eye on.

“Having the chance to play in a worldwide tournament on our home turf is fantastic,“ he says. “With home conditions, and playing in front of the fantastic support we always get in England, we have a great chance to win an ICC tournament. We’ve only ever won one in our history [the 2010 World Twenty20], so it will be a real opportunity for the players – and great for the public to have a high-profile tournament in the run-up to a huge Ashes series.“

But that’s for then. Right now, Cook’s mind will be focused on guiding his new team to the best possible series result against an Indian side that doesn’t take well to losing on their own patch. England may have a fight on their hands over the next two months, but in Cook they have a captain who couldn’t be more up for it. As our time with him draws to a close, the 27-year-old looks reflective for a moment. “Sporting careers are short,“ he says. “I just want to get stuck in.“

Tony Hodson @tonyhodson1

See the best eight teams in one-day international cricket take part in the ICC Champions Trophy in June 2013 – tickets for The Oval, Cardiff and Edgbaston are on sale now at icc-cricket.com, or call 0844 249 2013

India v England: 1st Test
Friday November 16-Monday November 19
Sardar Patel Stadium, Ahmedabad
Sky Sports 1 3.55am (Sky Sports 2 on Sunday)