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New Test skipper Alastair Cook insists the Kevin Pietersen affair did not derail England’s summer and, after sitting in on his first selectors’ meeting, says he’s ready to lead a gruelling winter tour of India

Evening Standard

Smiles better: Alastair Cook says he is far more comfortable taking over the Test captaincy now having been one-day skipper for 15 months. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Alastair Cook has no fear that, after a summer of unprecedented sporting success, a nation famous for treasuring plucky losers may suddenly expect victory all the time.

The expectation for British sport has been raised to an unsupportable level but that is not a burden for the new England cricket captain, who on Tuesday took part in his first selection meeting to select the squad for the winter tour of India.

“I don’t think high expectations matter,” he says, as we meet in a hotel near his home in Woburn. “What matters is that Britain did well at the

Olympics and again at the US Open with Andy Murray. How the Olympians cope with the pressure of having one shot at it in four years is something I could not get my head round.

“I really enjoyed watching Andy getting over the final hurdle. To come back in that final set, having been so close to something he dreamed of, must be very satisfying, particularly after four attempts. For a sportsman to keep coming back, keep doing the same thing over and over again and eventually to succeed, I like that.”

His words almost seem to be directed at his own team for Cook is well aware that, amid a few golden weeks for Britain, the nation’s traditional summer sport has struck a sour note.

England not only lost the Test series against South Africa but also the world No1 ranking. In the aftermath, Andrew Strauss suddenly resigned leaving one-day captain Cook, 27, to take over the Test side as well.

In his first interview since his appointment three weeks ago, Cook accepts South Africa outskilled England.

He says: “They kind of did to us what we did to Australia: lots of pressure on us as a batting unit and picking up the wickets when they needed. They ground us down. We had an amazing run as a Test team but, for whatever reason, when we became No1 we never played to that standard again. I do not know why. Maybe there was a psychological problem. Maybe being the No1 side did not sit as comfortably with us as we thought it would.”

Was this discomfort increased by the fact the summer revealed an England dressing room that was not always united? “I don’t think that was the reason why we did not play that well,” says Cook.

The firm tone in which he makes the assertion is a surprise given that the Kevin Pietersen affair saw England’s best batsman dropped for the final Test after it emerged he had sent “provocative” texts about Strauss to his friends in the South African team. In a further sign of disharmony, the 32-year-old was unhappy about a parody Pietersen Twitter account, although England players denied having any involvement in this.

The England management have decided not to give Pietersen a new central contract and are now discussing his international future. Talking about Tuesday’s selection meeting, Cook was happy to joke about his fellow selector, Warwickshire coach Ashley Giles, “gloating” over his side winning the County Championship. But, when I ask whether he would love to have Pietersen in India, his mask falls in place. “I cannot say anything.”

Then, for just a moment, the mask slips and he adds: “At this precise moment, stuff is going on behind closed doors with respect to both sides so that we can get the best possible outcome.”

The tour squad were due to be announced today but that has been delayed until Tuesday — possibly because there could be a way back for Pietersen. A return to India as captain completes a neat circle for Cook. Back in 2006 and only 21, he was asked to fly from an academy tour in the West Indies to play a Test in Nagpur.

And, for all that has happened to him since, he can still recall the dream-like quality of that moment. “It was pure disbelief,” he says. “A week before I was sitting on a beach dreaming of playing for England. A week later, I had scored a Test match hundred on my debut. It helped that pressure was off me.

“Nobody expected me to do anything, I was jet-lagged, had two training sessions, and got a little luck in the second innings to get a hundred.”

Cook could take the pressure off the winter tour by saying India are difficult to beat at home — they are undefeated in 25 out of 27 series and England have only won three series there in 80 years. “Conditions are very different,” he says. “The ball spins, the wickets are slower and lower and we will have to steel ourselves for a tough challenge.”

But he quickly adds: “That does not mean you are going to turn up in India and hope to get the right result. My goal is to win games for England. There is no other goal.”

And, despite last winter, which saw England heavily beaten by Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, Cook draws on his country’s Second Test victory in Sri Lanka as evidence that the team could rise to the Indian challenge.

“We did not play well against Pakistan but the win in Colombo showed the lessons we learnt in the UAE and the progress we had made. A lot of the same players will be going to India. We know what we have to do and we will start the moment we get on the plane. We have to if we want to win in India.”

Central to this game plan, says Cook, is to realise that timing is of the essence. “Things happen slowly in the early part of the game and accelerate later on,” he says. “In England, it is often the other way round. Sides that do well in India score massive runs and bat for huge periods of time. Our big challenge will be to bat for six or seven hours and then come back and do it again the next day as an entire batting unit. To win the series we have to do that consistently, not for one or two days or one Test but for a four-Test series.”

Cook’s emphasis on batting may seem strange given that India’s spinner-friendly wickets are not supposed to help his pace attack but he argues: “Last winter one of the big concerns going to the UAE and Sri Lanka was taking 20 wickets. We had struggled to do so on the subcontinent. In the series, when we had the chance to take 20 wickets, we did. Our bowlers have been outstanding for a long period. There’s no reason why they can’t do it again.”

This may be a batting captain making sure bowlers are on his side but Cook can also be wonderfully deprecatory about his own batting. He says: “I have never been a talented batsman but I have managed to score runs and that has come from my music.”

A saxophone player, he adds: “From an early age my music background helped me to concentrate and that transferred to my batting. By definition, left-handers are stylish but I missed out. At the age of 12, I was compared to David Gower. Then I saw a film of myself batting and I said, ‘Jesus Christ, that is nothing like David Gower’. He was free flowing. I can’t describe my batting as free flowing.”

The smile on his face indicates that he does not expect to be taken seriously. However, he is deadly serious when he says the captaincy has also come at the right time. “I am far more comfortable now taking over the Test captaincy because of having been one- day skipper for the past 15 months.

“Clearly, there is a huge mountain for me to climb as captain. Everyone says that. But I know where I was at the beginning of my one-day captaincy and where I am as one-day skipper now.

“I know how much I have improved, how much more comfortable I feel in the role and more confident in my decisions. In these 15 months I feel I have settled into my role.”

And while he, like Strauss, is the product of a public school education — Cook admits “we are similar in character” — he adds: “I cannot be Strauss as much as I would like to be.”

He has already given thought to what it means to take over the Test side. “When you are Test captain, you are the captain of England. Tests are very important to the English culture. It is the pinnacle of cricket. To be captain, you have to be true to yourself. It is a challenge I am looking forward to. If you start trying to be different, you cannot keep it up for a long time and players lose respect.”

At the beginning of the summer, Cook could not have expected to be Test captain but, now that he is, he clearly wants to present the most optimistic face. He says: “Now we are no longer No1 and Andrew is no longer captain, it gives us a fresh impetus. We have some very good senior players as well as promising youngsters trying to get into the side. It’s a good place to captain from.”

The winter in India, where England have not won since 1984, will show whether Cook is in the right place.

Alastair Cook is an ambassador for Clydesdale Bank, who are supporting local communities through their Howzat! campaign. For the chance to win £1,000 for your cricket club visit Facebook.com/ClydesdaleBankCricket

      

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