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Alastair Cook needs to take more risks

Posted on | July 8, 2015 | 29 Comments

Trevor Bayliss has the right idea in saying players need to be ‘self-reliant’, but Cook needs to be less cautious in his captaincy

After the exciting, entertaining cricket England played in the one-day international series, there is a feel‑good factor, and many people think we have a chance to win the Ashes. Trevor Bayliss, the new coach, is talking about playing “a bright, attacking style of cricket”, and in a two-horse race anything can happen. England played without fear and won an ODI series, but Test cricket is not the same as one-dayers.

The biggest question for England is: what mental scars are left on our batsmen by Mitchell Johnson after the recent 5-0 thrashing in Australia? Our pitches are a bit slower than in Australia, and Johnson should not get the same steep bounce. But throughout history fast bowlers have been the aces in any cricket team, and won Tests. They are a rare talent, and Australia have two in Johnson and Mitchell Starc. England have none.

On top of that, both of them are coming at our batsmen left-arm over the wicket at great pace, which is unusual. There is only one other bowler in world cricket with that same pace: Dale Steyn, and he is right-arm over. I believe that England should have done more work practising against fast left-arm over-the-wicket bowling to replicate what they are about to face. The way to do that would have been to get county left‑arm seamers to bowl off 20 yards instead of 22, to simulate the pace and unusual line of these two.

Johnson hits the deck hard while Starc can bowl short but often pitches it up with swing, and both are a real handful. For England’s batsmen, practising hitting half-volleys off medium-fast bowlers in the nets is not the same.

In the past two Ashes series, the Australian off-spinner Nathan Lyon was allowed to bowl unchallenged at one end, tying our batsmen down, making it easy for their seamers to attack, rotate and rest at the other end. It could be even more difficult this time, as England will have seven left‑handers in their line-up, with lots of rough outside off stump. England have four right-arm seamers; Australia have one. That is lots of boots and studs making footmarks, which will be awkward for our left-handers. If Bayliss is true to his word, he has to get our guys to attack Lyon, particularly the right-handers.

If Adil Rashid is to be a factor in this Ashes series, then Alastair Cook has to change his views on Adil and handle him differently. Every leg spinner will be judged against Shane Warne’s greatness. Adil is not, and never will be, as good as him – who the hell is? No one! Warne had exceptional control and an amazing amount of spin, and rarely ever bowled a bad ball. Adil can have poor spells of full tosses and long hops, but Yorkshire do not make a fuss about it. They just take him off, give him 20-30 minutes’ rest, and bring him back later, whereupon he may bowl well and get a couple of wickets. He is a mercurial individual who at times is an expensive wrist spinner, but bats, fields and takes wickets. To get the best out of him, the captain has to understand that, and know how to use him.

And this is the biggest problem. Before England left for the West Indies, Cook let it be known that James Tredwell would play in front of Rashid. Once Rashid bowled his full tosses and long hops in the practice match in St Kitts, I am told Alastair had no confidence in him. So much so that three Tests were played on three subcontinental-type slow spinning pitches, and Cook picked four seamers, even when Tredwell was injured, and Adil sat on his bottom each match.

If the selectors and/or coach feel Rashid should play, but deep down Cook does not share that belief, it will soon transmit itself to the player, and he will not bowl well. That will leave England with 10 men. Rashid has to be made to feel wanted, and it will mean nothing if Cook says he is comfortable with the leg spinner. When does he bowl him? What fields does he set for him? Does he genuinely welcome him as a front-line bowler? That belief will be tested when Rashid gives away runs.

I accept Cook desperately wants England to do well. I have no doubts about that. But his captaincy mirrors his batting. As a batsman he is playing superbly, in the best form and technique of his life. But captaincy and batting require entirely different mindsets. 

In batting he is technically sound, with oodles of determination, patience, concentration and single‑mindedness in the object of making runs. I understand it, because I was like that too. But it also means his captaincy is conservative, careful, orthodox, textbook, take-no-risks, and he listens to nobody – us ex-players included.

For me, Bayliss’s most important job will be to encourage Alastair to be less cautious, help him to take a chance now and again, be innovative and original, and above all try to think two steps ahead of the game.

The best captains have a feel for things that are about to happen, rather than waiting until they do happen. They can sense the changes and nuances in a game. In the last Test at Headingley, when Stuart Broad kept bouncing New Zealand’s tail-enders, England were crying out for a change of plan. Instead, Cook simply stood at slip letting Broad carry on. This may be one area where Bayliss could influence his thinking.

I have been impressed by what the new coach has been saying so far. He believes that the best players are “self-reliant”, and are “able to make decisions for themselves out on the ground, rather than look to the coaching staff for an answer”.

This is something I have been saying for a long time. England have become far too reliant on backroom staff, rather than thinking for themselves in the heat of battle. It will not happen overnight, but if Bayliss can make this happen, England will be a better Test team.