ALASTAIR Cook will happily reinvent his own leadership style to ensure England’s generation of free spirits express themselves in this summer’s Ashes.
Cook has withstood much criticism over perceived unimaginative tactics since taking over the Test captaincy three years ago.
The side has changed… there’s a different way we’ve gone about thingsAlastair Cook
As England seek to erase memories of their whitewash 2013-14 Ashes defeat under him, and extend a sequence of home success against Australia to four, he acknowledges he must move with the times. Cook’s England won the urn in 2013 when, with Andy Flower at the helm as coach, the preferred method was to grind out victories. What worked then, however, got England nowhere Down Under a few months later.
Now, with a new-look team, including several aggressive shot-makers, Cook has recognised he must be part of the rebrand. He will not be suckered into abandoning the conservatism at the crease which has brought him 9,000 Test runs and made him England’s leading Test run scorer. But, with Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler at England’s disposal in the middle order, and Mark Wood an extra attacking option with the ball, the captain knows he cannot afford anyone to be needlessly constrained.
The prototype collective was tested with mixed results in the drawn series against New Zealand, arguably at the behest of the gung-ho tourists. But Cook has seen enough to conclude he must buy into the update.
“At certain times I have to be able to get on that front foot as well as a captain… with this set of players,” he said, on the eve of the first Investec Test in Cardiff.
“If you looked a little bit further back to when I first started, it was a really methodical team – people who liked banging out areas time and time again, batters who were relentlessly grinding down the opposition, and that’s what we got a lot of success from.
“The guys coming in now are a little bit more free-spirited.
“They might go at a slightly higher economy rate, but the chances of bowling ‘jaffas’ are higher up there.
“I think it’s the same with our batting… it’s [me] being able to let them do that and make them feel comfortable.”
Stokes has been resurgent since being backed again to bat at number six, and is one of a clutch of emerging talents who appear ready to carry England forward.
“The side has changed… a natural evolution of players, and there’s certainly a different way we’ve gone about things,” added Cook.
“As a leader of a group, you do have to change your style of leadership to [suit] the players you’ve got and what gets the best out of them.”
They are all impatient, after weeks of expectation and a brief opportunity to acquaint themselves with their new Australian coach Trevor Bayliss, to get on with the job.
Cook said: “There are a bit of nerves flying around, probably from both sides.
“But (the) overriding thing… after all the build-up, the lads just can’t wait for tomorrow to get going. It’s a huge challenge for us to play against the best side in the world, but in our home conditions.
“As players, you want to test yourselves against the best… and see how good you are.”
Cook will allow a free rein then, but is well aware of his duty to ensure – unlike in some previous encounters with Australia – that unseemly sledging does not overshadow the proper joust of Test cricket. “The captain is responsible,” he said. “It’s a tough game, in a high-pressure situation. But we all have responsibilities, both sides, not only to the people at the ground but to those watching on TV as well… and to the game of cricket.
“People want to see really competitive cricket – both sides giving their all for their country.
“The honour of playing for your country shows how much it means to you. But I do agree there is just that line in the sand somewhere, which everyone knows you can’t cross – and I hope we play to that.”
Cook is doing his best to forget England’s miserable tour two winters ago, but it will be deed rather than word that helps him do so.
“The most important thing is that’s gone. You cannot keep harping on about that,” he said.
“What we as professional sportsmen do is we have to look forward.”
“If you went back five more months before that, we won the Ashes 3-0 in our own conditions,” Cook added. “This is all a brand new challenge, a fresh start. It’s about what happens tomorrow and the next 25 days.”
It may be asking a little much, on the tenth anniversary of a famously overdue series success to reproduce the vibe of 2005.
Cook will settle simply for a share of the 2015 spoils.
“It’s a great summer of sport, and we want to be part of that. We’ve got an opportunity. That’s the exciting thing – you’re playing the biggest series you want to play in.”