Alastair Cook is calm before the storm. Leading England into his third Ashes series as captain at Cardiff on 8 July, the 30-year-old is currently relaxed enough to state that emerging triumphant after five Tests against Australia this summer would rank as his “best achievement” on a cricket field.
For a player with exactly 9,000 Test runs to his name – the most by an Englishman – and boasting three Ashes wins on his CV, including one as captain, not to mention leading a first away series win in India for 28 years, it is a bold assertion. But then he, too, appears taken by the general wave of optimism that has engulfed the sport this summer.
It could have been so different. At 30 for four on the first day of the Lord’s Test against New Zealand in May, the prevailing sense – despite the tourists winning the toss and putting on an exhibition of high-quality swing bowling – was one of dread. Exultations of “here we go again” flowed down the timelines on social media, still scarred by a year and a half of turmoil that began with an Ashes whitewash in Australia, morphed into a summer dominated by Kevin Pietersen headlines and hit rock-bottom with a hopeless World Cup campaign.
But two of England’s young thrusters responded that day, with Joe Root and Ben Stokes putting on a counterattacking stand of 161 that drove England into a position of strength from which the Test match was ultimately won. Disappointment followed in a series-levelling 199-run defeat in Leeds but the one-dayers – so often the unloved fag end of a tour – proved revolutionary, with Eoin Morgan’s side continuing the unshackling in a 3-2 win that was capped off by victory in the one-off Twenty20 at Old Trafford.
Cook, who no longer features in England’s white-ball cricket but appears to have rediscovered his form with the bat in whites, followed those later events from afar and believes that initial response from his newly installed vice-captain and gun all-rounder in the first Test at Lord’s was the catalyst. “That was the real defining point so far of the summer, those two guys going out and playing like that,” he said.
“We spoke at the beginning of the summer about showing off your talent. I think that message has gone through into the one-dayers as well. The support we’re getting from people is a different kind of support from what I have ever experienced throughout my eight or nine years. That general optimism and excitement about English cricket hasn’t happened in the last 15 months.”
Cook is quick to point out that, with no disrespect towards New Zealand intended, Australia and the pressure-cooker environment of Ashes cricket presents a tougher challenge when it comes to continuing the intent shown thus far. Asked if such an approach was possible against Michael Clarke’s side, he replied: “I think so. The challenge of that is sticking true to that under the pressure of a bigger series. I think we can. All we’re asking is for people to play their natural way.
“We talked at the start of the summer about showcasing our talent and playing the way you want to play and having that belief and confidence backed by the support staff and other players. If you want to score at six an over, you go and do that. We will back you 100%. People like Mo Ali, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Joe Root, they are looking to take attack to the opposition and that’s when they play their best. We want to see people do that.”
Aggression has been one of the buzz words of the season. Against New Zealand it meant two sides going hammer and tongs at each other without ever spilling into animosity. David Boon, the match referee for the Test series, and Javagal Srinath, who took over during the one-dayers, could not have been less troubled and yet Australia’s arrival – judging by their boorish behaviour in the World Cup final – may see whoever takes their place for the Ashes somewhat busier. Cook, however, expects his side to meet their end of the bargain and will raise the matter during the four-day training camp in Spain that starts this weekend.
“The way we play cricket – sledging and stuff – we have to do it authentic to us as a side but we have all taken a big lesson over what happened over the last five weeks,” he said. “No matter how much cricket you have played you are always learning. The way that both sides conducted themselves in that [New Zealand] series was a refreshing approach and everyone enjoyed that. We can only control what we control. It is part of what we will talk about at the camp.”
Cook, during his 30-minute sitdown with the written media, admitted he has in mind his team for the first Test but offered hope to Yorkshire’s title-winning leg-spinner, Adil Rashid, who was left out of the trip to Spain, admitting the 27-year-old’s form since being an unused tourist in the Caribbean earlier this year has been impressive. Mark Footitt, the Derbyshire left-armer, does make the trip, with his new captain hoping the rest periods that international cricket can afford him – as opposed to the county treadmill – could see his pace increase.
Overall the Test captain agrees that Australia, the world’s second-ranked side at present, start the series as favourites and is happy with his side’s underdog status. “What is driving us is what has happened over the last six weeks,” he added. “[It is] restoring the pride of English cricket, making cricket feel popular again, enjoying what it has done to people and making stars of people.”
When one considers that to-do list and the vibe when England were 30 for four on day one at Lord’s, it is little wonder that Cook now sees this summer as a chance to top the lot.
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