Preview: Cook can strengthen case to become Test captain
England's strong results in recent ODIs are at odds with their Test form and suggest Cook is ready to lead in the longer form
If England can defeat South Africa in the five-match one-day series, it will strengthen the case for making Alastair Cook the captain of the Test side.
Test match captain Andrew Strauss has had a lot of support in the wake of the Kevin Pietersen texting saga, and England’s 2-0 loss in the Test series. But – without being disrespectful to a marvellous servant of English cricket - it is difficult to see quite why.
The trajectory of Strauss’s batting form has been downward for some time. He came up with two fine hundreds against quite a weak West Indies attack, but an average of 32 since the start of 2010 tells its own story. A world-class South African probed weaknesses in his technique and further undermined his confidence.
The argument then goes that, in spite of his patchy form with the bat, Strauss deserves to keep his place because of his worth as a captain. But this case is also difficult to sustain. Strauss has never been the best tactician on the field and his worth as a captain has been measured by his ability to motivate players and create dressing room harmony.
But it is at least arguable that Strauss has not done enough to quell the formation of cliques in the England dressing room. It is asking a lot for him to sort that out, whilst plugging the holes in his technique.
Strauss must take at least some responsibility for the failure of senior team members to express their undoubted natural talent over the past 12 months. The bizarre excuse that it’s hard being number one because there is nothing to aspire to is rather pathetic.
There would be a stronger case to keep Strauss as captain if England did not have an alternative. But Alastair Cook is obviously doing a wonderful job skippering the ODI side.
Under Cook, England have won 10 ODIs on the bounce and are ranked number one in the world. Meanwhile, England have lost six out of their past 11 Test matches. The same players who have performed brilliantly in ODIs have been a shadow of themselves in Test matches.
Ian Bell, for example, looked the equal of any batsman in world cricket in the ODIs against West Indies and Australia earlier this summer. Given licence to express himself at the top of the order, he scored 368 runs in six innings and won two Man of The Series awards.
Bell’s poor form in the winter Tests seemed a thing of the past. But then came his weak displays in the Tests against South Africa. In the face of South African aggression, Bell reverted to the slightly timid soul who was so easily bullied by Shane Warne in 2005.
Cook himself is another case in point. In 11 Tests this year he has made one hundred and averaged 36, which is way below his normal level of performance. But in ODIs, Cook has been a revelation, scoring three hundreds in 10 games at an average of 58.
A third batsman to prosper in this summer’s ODIs is Ravi Bopara, who averaged 91 in the four games against Australia. But Bopara, too, looked slightly paralysed with fear in his Test outings this summer.
Of course, one cannot entirely blame Strauss for the Test defeats and one cannot give all the credit to Cook for the ODI victories. But it is difficult to argue that the players in the Test team would not be able to thrive under Cook.
A win in the five-match ODI series against South Africa would provide more yet more compelling evidence that Cook is ready to take over as captain in the longer format.
South Africa, however, offer a stiff challenge and will take some beating. Ranked second in the world, they would leapfrog England by winning this series. And they have some wonderful players in this form of the game.
Hashim Amla, like Jonathan Trott, can go along at his own pace in Test matches. But in ODIs, Amla is a far more aggressive strokeplayer than his number three England counterpart. Amla has a strike rate of 91 in ODIs, yet still manages to average a phenomenal 56 in 57 games. His consistency makes him the world’s number one ODI batsman.
His ODI team captain AB de Villiers is only two places below Amla in the rankings. He has been in sparkling form of late, scoring 406 runs – with two undefeated hundreds - for once out in his last six ODIs.
There are also talents we have not seen in the Test series, such as the number one ranked ODI bowler Lonwabo Tsotsobe, fast bowler Wayne Parnell, and allrounder Albie Morkell.
It will be fascinating to see if England can recover their confidence and self-expression and exact some small revenge for their Test match defeats.