Alastair Cook has remained calm, unfazed and sometimes demonstrated tactical brilliance during the tense moments of the current series. Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the moves employed by the England team that underlines the strengths of the side.
Captain Cook of the British Royal Navy has been rendered legendary in history by his expeditions, especially his voyages to the Antipodal shores.
And now, in English cricket, captain Alastair Cook stands on the verge of similar acclaim, his glory topped by the triumph over the Antipodal arch-enemy.
Records show his win-loss ratio to be remarkable; he has won nine and lost just one of his 15 Tests at the helm. If we ignore the two Tests as caretaker captain against Bangladesh in 2010 and start counting from the fantastic tour of India last winter when he took over the mantle of leadership, he has won seven and lost one. The only loss came in India, in the opening Test at Ahmedabad. And even as tongues began to wag about the supposed ‘revenge series’ in which England would be inevitably crushed, the team showed extraordinary mettle and preparation and came back to win 2-1. Beating India in India is a feather in the cap of any captain, and Cook led the way with 562 runs at 80.28.
It is the modern affliction of offering grudging excuses for success when it comes to evaluating captaincy. We hear that Cook’s team has not been tested by the might of South Africa, we hear his triumph in India came against a weakened side without the presence and form of their famous middle-order, we hear that the current Australian side is the worst to have landed in England.
All that may be true. And of course, Cook may have lost his form with the bat during this current series. But, one needs to give credit where it is due. And the two close Tests in the current series, which saw England clinch see-saw battles at Nottingham and Chester le Street, do vindicate his claims as one of the best captains in the modern game.
Particularly, the manner in which he remained unfazed during David Warner’s initial assault on the England bowlers in the second innings underlined his growing maturity as skipper. Even as Geoff Boycott went ballistic on Test Match Special, issuing dark prophecies of an Australian triumph as the score passed hundred without loss, Cook remained calm, fully aware of the brittle Australian middle-order, knowing that one wicket was all it would take to get back in the game. He stuck to his plan of using Graeme Swann against the clutch of left handers at the top of the order, and finally it bore fruit.
The winning tactic
It was perhaps immediately after the drinks break in the final session that the tactical side of his leadership was demonstrated at its fullest. With the score reading 174 for three and Michael Clarke looking dangerous, things were still tilted towards Australia. Under the brilliant sunshine after rain had pelted down during lunch, Cook placed a man extraordinarily close in at backward short leg as Stuart Broad started to run in. Clarke, the only class batsman in the Australian line up, had already essayed some beautiful drives. He showed all the promise of taking the tourists home by building on the excellent platform provided by the openers.
And now, with Ian Bell crouching in that curious position, doubts crept into the mind of the Australian captain. His front foot, which had moved nimbly and with elegance to the pitch of the ball, now remained rooted to the crease, perhaps expecting a ball at his ribs, trying to think of the ways to keep short pitched stuff down. And Broad bowled a ripper, pitching it up, moving it slightly away. And the tentative foot movement saw Clarke’s bat groping for the ball as it went past his outside edge to clip the top of off-stump.
It was the pivotal wicket and Australia collapsed within another fifty runs. The best batsman of the opposition had been outwitted by some superb strategic manoeuvre.
Sometimes these moves come off, sometimes they don’t. But, the planning was exceptional. It might have been Cook’s own brainwave, or, given it was implemented immediately after the drinks interval, it might have been driven by the think tank. Whatever be the case, it underlined that England under Cook is a side that sticks to the task, seldom shows panic, and thinks on its feet.
Another example of such dynamic thinking was demonstrated in the morning, when Bell and Matt Prior were dismissed off consecutive balls from a fire-breathing Ryan Harris. At 251 for seven, the new ball having its say on the proceedings in most eloquent terms, Tim Bresnan suddenly changed gears and started belting the bowling at the other end.
The 79 runs that were added by the lower-order, with Bresnan, Broad and Swann deciding to chance their arms in conditions that threatened wickets at every moment, made for some of the most enthralling Test cricket and ultimately proved crucial in the 74-run victory. Bresnan, who had grafted his way to 12 from 50 balls with Bell’s reassuring presence at the other end, hit a flurry of audacious boundaries and Swann followed suit. The results underlined the incredible all-round strength of a side that batted till ten, and also demonstrated the ability to change the approach with the flow of the game.
This England side is dangerous, and it is blossoming under the astute leadership of Cook. True, the captain needs to score some runs, but he still averages 56.62 with the bat as skipper. With the Ashes already under his belt he is bound to relax and perhaps make up for the un-scored runs at The Oval.
Things look increasingly positive as the much deserved champagne flows in the English dressing room.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)