Lessons in Leadership: Alistair Cook and The Ashes – MCC Member, Cricket

What is this fuss all about? England win a test match by 247 runs, win a series 2 – 0, the captain scores a century, as does a young local boy; Swann proves why he is the top spin bowler in the world, and the seam attack bowled brilliantly especially (as ever) when the ball is swinging. Not bad preparation before a home ashes series if you ask me…so why all this fuss over Alistair Cook’s captaincy?

Captaincy in cricket is an odd thing at the best of times – it is possibly the sport where a captain has the most authority to dictate tactics and affect results; field placements; bowling changes; declarations; batting line ups and so on. Even the toss of a coin in Cricket holds more import than in any other sport. One might argue therefore that a cricket captain can maintain his selection purely on his leadership skills even if his personal form is not at the required level. Mike Brearley, often lauded as a great captain, captained England in 31 of his 39 Test appearances, averaged only 28.8 and never scored a century but he will always be remembered for taking over from Ian Botham in 1981 and galvanising him and the team to win the Ashes.

Through the nineties and early noughties being England captain was a thankless task, Atherton, Stewart and Hussain all had to contend with unprofessionalism, inconsistent performers, poor selection policy, weak bowling attacks and brittle batting line ups – who can forget those numerous collapses? They were excellent players whose batting form definitely suffered as their captaincy continued and the ever increasing public scrutiny and obligations polarised the pressure. Since Hussain though England have been on an upward trend starting with the 2005 Ashes victory under Michael Vaughan (Who captained England in more tests than any other man but whose batting average was 50% better when not Captain) to the back to back Ashes success of Andrew Strauss. And now we have the current golden boy of English Cricket. Alistair Cook has more England centuries than anyone else, the youngest person to 7000 test runs, a bright, engaging and articulate individual who obviously has the support of the team and management. In his 11 games in charge he has won 6 (a win rate of 54%, better than any other England Captain – albeit that 11 games is not a fair judge) – he has also scored 7 centuries in those games.

So to repeat the question – why the fuss? So what if many thought that he should have enforced the follow on, or declared earlier. At the end of the day England won by a healthy margin. It should be noted that a former Captain turned Sky pundit (as they all seem to be these days) said England did what he expected England to do – they made sure they did not lose the game. But as long as we keep winning what does it matter?

And that is the crux of leadership. It is easy to lead when things are going well and you have the best team but a leader should only ever be defined by what he does when things are going badly, when the pressure is on – that is when leadership is tested. Consider Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting’s famous Australia side – and then consider the work that Mark Taylor did before them and the team that Michael Clarke now has to lead. For England Nasser Hussain does not have a great record on paper but he was the one who had the vision and will power to push for central contracts, promoted professionalism, fitness and a winning mentality. England now talk of scoring “daddy centuries,” that attitude (although promoted by another ex-captain Graham Gooch) would not have happened without Hussain laying the foundations.

Vaughan, Strauss and Cook are all by account gentlemen and highly respected by their peers but they have all had strong bowling attacks, management and structures that have improved performance and, with the decline of Australia and India, England have been one of the top two test playing nations with South Africa. In fact the only real issues they have had to deal with from a team point of view are Andrew Flintoff’s fitness and the never-ending soap opera that is Kevin Pieterson.

And South Africa is where Cook should go to look at what makes a Test Match captain. Graham Smith has captained South Africa since 22 in over 100 tests with a 50% win rate and a batting average just shy of 50 – an outstanding record by any account. Ironically Hussain, Vaughan and Strauss have all retired post series against Smith’s South Africa. The bullish and honest Smith has never been the most popular or media friendly captain, nor the most classical or lauded batsman but he is a man who shoulders responsibility and strives to win. In 2009 he was rousingly applauded by an Australian crowd for playing with a broken hand (removing a splint and playing without pain killers). He is one of only two men to declare in both innings and yet lose a test match because sometimes those who dare do not succeed. Smith has made mistakes, but he is courageous, decisive and a leader – and as a man who has had his own share of run-ins with Kevin Pietersen would likely not have put up with him.

So the point is that Alistair Cook will make mistakes and learn the captaincy game. The team he has inherited will ensure that at the end of his career his stats will be very strong and hopefully his batting average will also remain high but if he is ever to really make a name as a Captain he is going to have to be braver, and maybe even upset Andy Flower from time to time. This coming Ashes series will not mark Cook as a leader – Australia are a shadow of their former selves – but he has a chance to prove himself decisive and his own man. The real tests for him will come further down the road because statistics alone do not mark out a leader but what they do in times of trouble.

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