England need Alastair Cook back to best to ensure new era succeeds

Scyld Berry
Alastair Cook is free of the burdens of captaincy - Rex Features

It is essential for England that Alastair Cook makes a success of the next stage of his career. On Friday he is due to play his first competitive game, for Essex against Somerset at Taunton, since he retired from the Test captaincy.

England need three or four more years of Cook, who is only 32, churning out 1,000 Test runs annually. Australia are lining up three bowlers quicker than anything England have, at least when Mark Wood is injured, yet England can retain the Ashes if Cook performs as he did in 2010-11 - when his aggregate of 766 was the second highest in any series for England - and if he grinds down Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson until they retire abashed or injured.

Free of the England captaincy, its duties and distractions, Cook is going back to what he does best. Batting is what he does; captaincy is what he had to do. After his initial spike, with three centuries against India in his first three Tests as official captain, Cook’s impact as a batsman diminished. He scored his share, but they came in 30s and 40s rather than those innings of industrial quantities. Since that tour of India in December 2012, he has made only three centuries in the first innings, when they are more valuable.

At a glance | Most tests for England

Cook a disruptive influence back in the ranks? Whispering to old mates behind Joe Root’s back and undermining the new leader? No imagination can surely conceive of that happening. If his personality was not naturally suited to captaincy - beyond leading by example and steadily deploying his resources - it is perfectly suited to elder statesman. Cook will stand by his successor, not only as first slip to Root’s second, but in every way.

Returning to the ranks is something modern England captains have been good at: they may not have been very successful leaders but, once back in the ranks, most have not rocked the boat. Graham Gooch, Cook’s mentor in batting, set the trend after resigning the England captaincy, when he served under the far junior Mike Atherton - a much wider age-gap than the six years between Cook and Root; then Atherton in turn served under Nasser Hussain, who after retiring to the media centre became Cook’s mentor in captaincy. Everything points to Cook being an entirely beneficial influence, just as it does to Root becoming an excellent captain.

It was in the course of 2016 - after winning not only the Ashes against all expectations but beating the top-ranked Test team in South Africa - that Cook lost his drive to lead, and the team marked time, then went backwards: six Tests won, eight lost. He was still at his best against Pakistan on the last afternoon at Edgbaston last summer, and against Bangladesh in Dhaka last winter, when shuffling his seamers and keeping his head under mounting pressure. Otherwise, saving runs in the field became his first priority, and at times it would seem his only one.

In this context, when James Anderson captained Lancashire last weekend in their second innings against Essex, it was notable he set exactly the same ultra-defensive fields as Cook in his last days: only two close fielders for a newish ball, no more than two round the bat for a spinner. Emollient, never confrontational, Cook gave Anderson and Stuart Broad too much leeway, and settled for funky fields instead of attacking. Anyone who does not pitch the ball when demanded by Root, and his vice-captain Ben Stokes, risks being pinned against the dressing-room wall.

Ben Stokes is England's new vice-captain Credit: AP

One thousand runs per year, with the emphasis on first-innings centuries, would do more than anything - other than a new strike bowler - to smooth Root’s path. Only twice since he began in 2006 has Cook aggregated less than 900 runs in a calendar year, the last time in 2014, when still shocked by the savagery of Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris in Australia’s 5-0 whitewash. It is unrealistic to expect Cook to keep doing it for five more years, and thus overtake Sachin Tendulkar’s total of 15,921 Test runs; but Ricky Ponting, in second place with 13,378, is well within the range of Cook and his phlegmatism, stubbornness, hunger, bravery and sheer skill. He has faced 23,560 balls in his England career and must have been struck on the upper body by less than a handful.

What next for Alastair Cook?

He is needed more than ever in a top three containing two batsmen with five Tests between them, Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings, with Root bound to resume his most prolific position of four. They are a pair of exceptional lads, but when the fur is flying on that first morning in Brisbane on November 23, there is probably no opening batsman in England’s annals that you would rather see than their leading Test run-scorer: bat raised, then settling into his stance, raising his hands high to drop the short ball down or shovelling through mid-wicket, then taking a few steps towards square-leg, before focussing on nothing but the next ball.

In numbers | Alastair Cook's record as England captainRegisterLog incommenting policy

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