The Cook report: what are England’s chances in The Ashes?

Mike Brearley is a psychotherapist and ex-England captain – who better to probe current skipper Alastair Cook on the eve of the contest?

Has England’s cricket captain Alastair Cook got the toughest job in British sport? Winning the Ashes is never easy, but beating Australia this summer looked, until very recently, about as likely as encountering a bashful Aussie on Bondi beach.

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Australia have been rampant since thrashing England 5–0 in a bad-tempered series in 2013. England, on the other hand, have been in therapy, after controversially jettisoning star batsman Kevin Pietersen to start afresh.

Cook arrives for his Radio Times cover shoot surrounded by handlers, minders, publicists and sponsors, rummaging in his kit bag for his captain’s cap, every inch the modern, polished, pampered pro. Meanwhile, phut-phut-phutting through the Lord’s gates comes arguably England’s greatest ever captain, piloting his ancient 1972 Fiat 500 to a halt in the Lord’s car park. Mike Brearley, now 73, knows what it takes to win the Ashes, having won them twice, most memorably in 1981.

But enough of the past. These two captains of England are here to talk about cricket, critics and charisma – and the small matter of whether England can win back that Ashes urn.

MIKE BREARLEY When I was captain of England somebody said to me, and it has stayed with me ever since, “There’s only one captain of England. There are lots of ex-captains of England, and you will be an ex-captain of England for a long time, so make the best of it.”

ALASTAIR COOK Absolutely. And every time you put the blazer on to toss the coin, every time you walk onto the pitch, you think that. You’re only England captain for a very short space of time. 

MB But it can feel quite lonely, especially with the critics. You take all the blame, for a start. When I first took over somebody wrote to me with some advice: “Brearley, there’s an Italian proverb – if you want to know if a fish is rotten, you cut off its head.”

AC But then you also get the credit.

MB But the criticism can hurt. One of the differences between our two times would be social media. I don’t use it. Do you?

AC I don’t use it. Youngsters now, coming into the side, who have grown up with social media, and Twitter, they have a harder task than you or I had. It’s instant and anyone on Twitter is a target… you can be sitting in your lounge, and you’ve had a really good day, and even if you scored 100, someone could still write to you and say, “That was the worst 100 I ever saw – what the hell are you doing?”

Basically they stand at your door, throw s**t at you and walk away with no consequences whatsoever. I know you can build your brand and you can build a profile and all of that, but it’s just not for me.

MB Does everyone in the team do it?

AC Yes. But I think social media means the players are under even more scrutiny because it’s instant. You can’t avoid it if you’re on Twitter.

MB Do you think the series against New Zealand has made a difference? Brendon McCullum’s team played with a smile on their face. Do you think that has rubbed off on England at all?

AC When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really appreciate the effect it has on people, but after those two Test matches where we won one, and they won one, a lot of people said it was one of the most enjoyable series to watch. I think the spirit has been fantastic, and we definitely can learn from that. Although you don’t want people in the team just because they’re smiling and laughing…

MB But if people are enjoying themselves on the whole, they probably play better. And it’s good for the game if the spirit is right between the teams.

AC I agree. It was fantastic. It was the most enjoyable series I’ve played in.

MB When you’re playing Australia it’s going to be slightly different.

AC It might be different, or we could have a responsibility to the game.

MB I agree with you. You can’t blame the Australians for everything!

AC It’s always exciting when Australia come, but I just think both sides have got this responsibility now for the way cricket’s gone. We’ve got a great opportunity to make a real statement about how we should play cricket. But I think the feel-good factor about English cricket now, after the disappointments of the World Cup, and then people seeing the next generation of players means there is a buzz about it.

MB There always is. But there was no questioning the fierceness when it came to the Ashes, there never was. It’s a competition – it’s called Test cricket, and that’s what it’s meant to be. I sometimes quote a conversation between one of my batsmen Derek Randall and the Australian wicket keeper Rod Marsh.

Randall came in to bat, and I think the slow bowler was bowling, so Marsh was up to the stumps, and when he got in to bat, Derek said, “Ey up, Marshy, how are things?” And Marshy growled, “F*** off, Randall, this isn’t a garden party, you know!” I quite like both sides of that conversation. Some said the intensity of playing back-to-back Ashes series in 2013 actually soured the relationship.

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AC I think when you play ten Test matches relationships are going to be strained. And clearly they got on top as well…