I honestly believe that Cook has to improve tactically if England are to become the No1 team in the world again and I do not think too many people would disagree with me. I am also speaking from the experience of playing under some great captains – and some who were not so great. If you look at the leaders Australia had when we did well and when we struggled, it generally reflected the standard of the captains.
If I had to choose a captain out of the England side it would be Kevin Pietersen or Graeme Swann. That may sound like an unbelievable thing to say after all the controversy of last year but I think KP has the best cricket brain in the team. Graeme Swann is good too, as we have seen from his Twenty20 captaincy of England. They are both imaginative, good readers of the game and take the aggressive option first, whereas Cook retreats too quickly. He goes very defensive when he should be stamping his authority on the match.
You might say what rubbish as it is all about winning. People have rightly pointed out Cook has won the Ashes and beaten India in India during the first year of his captaincy. That is a pretty good record. But my point is that if you want to be the best team in the world, which England aspire to be, then you have to have more aggression from the leader. I played for 15 years in one of the best teams of all time, winning in all conditions against all opposition. We had some great players, sure, but we also needed a good captain with imagination.
You cannot just let the game drift and come to you. You may win more than you lose that way because you have quality bowlers but to be the best over a long period of time, you have to have a proactive leader. If England want to be ranked second or third, winning more series than they lose, then fine, but it will not be enough to make them the best team of their generation which is the ambition we hear from the England players.
England won the Ashes in 2005 because Michael Vaughan was imaginative and proactive. He came up with different fields, attacked with the bat and challenged the opposition batsmen all the time. England will not reach that standard until they change their style of play.
The tour to Australia will be a good gauge as to where Cook’s captaincy is right now. Remember the Kookaburra ball goes soft after the first 30-35 overs. It is then down to tactics. In England, with the Duke ball, you can let the game come to you a bit more because there is always a chance something will happen. But not in Australia as the harshness of the wickets and the hot temperatures can drain the players.
Sure there is more to captaincy than tactics. The other part is to create a good team environment and a happy dressing room, which is where Cook’s strengths lie at the moment. He has reintegrated Pietersen well, too.
Clarke has Cook covered on tactics but where he must improve is in creating a happier team environment. The Australian team were noticeably happier at the end of the English summer and, as Clarke and Lehmann’s partnership started to take hold, Australia played better.
If we look back over the years to when England lost eight Ashes series in a row there were a lot of people in their side playing for themselves and their own positions. It was a selfish environment. This is what Clarke has to avoid at all costs.
If you look at the last three Tests in the Ashes, and the recent one-day series in India, there were a lot more Australian players smiling and in form.
It looks a happier team than during the ICC Champions Trophy in June and the first couple of Test matches in England but the work has to continue.
To me Australia have to improve in more areas than England if they are to regain the Ashes. But if England want to be the best Test side in the world, then Cook has to be more aggressive and proactive.