Alastair Cook must change deeply ingrained habits if he is to succeed as captain
Alastair Cook needs urgently to become more adventurous as England captain if he is to make the success of leadership that he has made of his batting. But how he does that when all evidence points to a past that has embraced certainty and eschewed chance is the challenge facing him and England’s management during the Test series against India, which starts at Trent Bridge on Wednesday.
Change of that nature is never easy when habits appear ingrained. In 2003, Cook captained Bedford School in a match against an Oakham team that contained Stuart Broad. Cook made an unbeaten double hundred, a score almost unheard of in schools cricket. But in reaching that milestone he essentially sacrificed the game, leaving Oakham fewer overs to make the 300 plus runs needed for victory than he and his team had taken in getting them. In his two years as captain of Bedford, Cook made 2,014 runs in 29 innings. Despite his dominance Bedford drew 16 of their 34 matches under him (they won 13), which suggests he was not a bold captain even then. Incredibly, Cook’s batting success and the hard work and discipline he used to achieve it is probably why his captaincy is so staid and measured.
According to Steven Sylvester, a sports and business psychologist used by many cricketers, Cook would have gained positive reinforcement from an early age after seeing how his effortful and process-driven methods bore fruit with his batting, but is struggling now to see why it cannot work for his captaincy.
“It is like the salesman who hits his targets and goals for fun and then gets promotion to be a manager,” said Sylvester on Monday. “Suddenly, he has to manage people and get them to reach the same targets, which isn’t as easy especially, as in Cook’s case, if there is this toxic brew of the team losing and his own poor run of form with the bat.”
Since England began their run of Test defeats in Brisbane last November, Cook has received a deluge of advice, not all of it constructive. Much has been about him toughening up.
“Cook needs support and care in developing mental softness, not toughness, if he is going to be a successful leader,” said Sylvester. “Mental toughness, the traditional approach, is limited. Teaching people to be tougher, ie going harder, stronger and faster, is old-fashioned. What we need instead is to teach people to be softer under stress, to become more flexible and easier to shape.”
For someone such as Cook, a leading chorister before his voice broke then England’s most prolific Test batsman in terms of centuries, the Ashes whitewash was probably the most traumatic event in his sporting life. Certainly, few people have skins thick enough to cope with the constant carping Cook has had to endure now that England’s brave new world has been shown not to contain “beauteous mankind” but the same old failings.
“Cook is in a major role transition,” said Sylvester. “From being a single-minded prolific run-scorer he now has to shift to become an inspirational captain. It will take time. Getting runs again will help him but there is still that preference of his for not taking any risks that needs to be addressed.
“Understanding why he makes the choices he does under pressure and why he has developed a preference for risk aversion will help him develop greater mental strength. Only then is he likely to become the adventurous leader who achieves more with his team and helps them to play with imagination and not fear.”
To read it on-line Steven Sylvester on Alistair Cook-Daily Telegraph