The Cook revolution has been a quiet one. It has sneaked up on us. After a drubbing in the last Ashes in Australia, Cook looked finished – certainly as a captain and maybe even as a player. But he stayed on. After a long and fruitless run in the ODI side, he was finally jettisoned but it was too late, leaving the team with no chance and Cook furious and hurt at his treatment. The way he was cut from the ODI side and captaincy (right decision, wrong timing) was enough to make anyone feel angry and humiliated. In these circumstances, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a player might just say ‘Sod you’, walk away and write a salty autobiography. But not Cook, who seethed quietly then harnessed his anger and transformed it into determination to prove himself as Test skipper and opening bat.
With this Ashes series win, Cook has finally overcome his captaincy blindspot and finally looks comfortable in his own captaincy skin. He must be lauded for his resilience, and the England hierarchy equally congratulated for their patience (go on, give them a pat on the back – it’s the only one they’ve had for a couple of years).
There was a decision in the Trent Bridge test that signalled to me that Cook is now the England captain he always wanted to be. On the final morning with just three wickets to take, he bowled Stokes and Wood instead of Broad. Why was this decision, which would have no impact on whether England won or not, so important?
- The way they’d bowled, these two lads were just as likely to take the wickets as anyone but the conventional and populist thing to do would have been to bowl Broad. Eight in the first innings, one more to take for a rare 10 in a match, home crowd favourite… But no, Cook took a bigger decision. He didn’t follow expectations but equally it wasn’t funky. It was a sound tactical, slightly intuitive, decision where he backed his own decision-making processes.
- It was a big statement to those two young players and to the whole team. ‘Yes,’ he was saying, ‘I’ve got Jimmy and Broady with 700+ wickets between them but actually these two young lads are going to finish the job.’ This said to his own team that he believed each and every one of them could win matches for England – indeed he expected them to, and they should expect to do so too. This was a confidence-inspiring move for a side gelling together nicely.
- It also said to the Aussies, ‘actually we’ve got four quicks who can get you out not just two. I trust them to do it.’ And they did it. I wouldn’t say it’s quite Roberts, Holding, Garner, Marshall but it is a quartet of fast men who can all destroy a side on their day. Future oppositions will have noticed.
So why has it taken so long for Cook to slip comfortably into the captain’s role? Well, he didn’t captain much before he got the England job and not everyone drops into the captaincy role easily. It clearly didn’t come naturally. Then he went two years without a Test century, barely justified his place in the team, got thrashed in the Ashes, dropped from the ODI side and drew with a ‘mediocre’ West Indies side.
The uncertainty led to what appeared to be captaincy by committee where he had plans when he walked out on to the field that he stuck to rigidly. He was slow to react and tactically limited. He became defensive both on the field and in front of the media. The latter was understandable – he came in for some fierce criticism, often unnecessarily harshly delivered. The former was less easy to defend. So formulaic was his captaincy sometimes, I’d imagined him before walking out on to the field with a piece of paper in his pocket from the master in charge of cricket, showing him when to change the bowling and where to put the fielders.
He was also dealing with the retirement of key players, turmoil at the top of the ECB and the KP issue. He was so busy fighting fires he probably didn’t have time to lead the team as he’d have liked. But peace, in the end, came. The New Zealand series was the turning point. Almost by accident, he realised just what his young team was capable of – and he liked it. They gave him confidence and now that he had a young team 100% behind him, he was able to reflect that confidence right back to them. Loyalty, support and commitment went both ways. A joie de vivre, missing for so long, returned.
So confident, calm captain Cook began to make good decisions on the field, tactically sound and often productive. The decisions weren’t made for the sake of being seen to make them, they were made because they were the best for the team. They were made because they came naturally to him. Finally the title of England captain sat comfortably on him.
I do still harbour reservations about his batting which I’m sure isn’t anywhere near as good as a few years ago. On the off side, he still seems to poke at the ball hard with his hands out in front of him and the way he was LBW to a straight half-volley in the Trent Bridge test was concerning (how did he miss it by so much?) but what his batting has now is self-belief again and that’s more than enough to paper over the cracks. He remains a good batsman if no longer a great one, and is an important foil for the expansive players down the order.
Cook the captain is so confident now that he was quite comfortable to say, after the Ashes had been won, that he hadn’t expected the team to be ready to win them just yet. He also went out of his way to thank Peter Moores. And his voice cracked with emotion when he talked about his team, the lads who had backed him all the way and played out of their skins to pull off a remarkable win. An Ashes win is always a defining moment for a captain but when that captain has been through what Cook has been through, it is a moment that resonates way beyond the field of play.