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.

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

MB After being stood down as England’s one-day captain, has it helped to have a bit more time off and be able to focus on your Test cricket?

AC Not going to the World Cup has given me a really good time to go out and work specifically on my game. It was about two days before Christmas when they came out and said I wasn’t going to captain the World Cup.

MB Bit of a blow?

AC Absolutely, it was a blow, it would be a dream to captain your country in a World Cup. But at the same time I understand the decision because I hadn’t been scoring the runs. Obviously I was disappointed, but then I was like, “Right – I’m going to have the whole of January off. I’m going to not pick up a cricket bat in January.” Mainly because it was shooting season, and I didn’t want to train, in case I got an invite. So I was at home on the farm [in Essex where he lives with his wife Alice and daughter Elsie], and I had the month away.

MB What else did you do to recharge?

AC I’ve just been on the farm. I always talk about it, but it’s just such a great way of life. We have a little girl who is now 14 months old. I didn’t know what to expect when we had Elsie, but it’s been brilliant.

MB Do you change the nappies?

AC I do change the nappies, yes. I’m an early bird, so when I’m at home I don’t mind getting up early, so she wakes up early and I do feel that Alice has had a fairly tough time with me being away for as much as I have, so any time I can be home, it is nice to look after Elsie.

MB I didn’t make my England debut I think until I was 34. Most people were retiring! I was an old man, but I had a life outside cricket [after graduating from Cambridge, Brearley lectured in philosophy and then trained as a psychotherapist]. You played yours at 21. Do you feel sometimes that perhaps there were other things you could have done?

AC Not really. I had a place at uni, but I took a year out, like a gap year, but just played cricket – I went to Australia. Then I came back and I played half the season for the Essex first team and they made it quite clear to me in 2005, when I was meant to be going to uni, that there was a first-team place for me. So… I just thought, was it worth the gamble to carry on pursuing cricket rather than take a three-year degree?

Of course you can still play cricket [if you go to university], but Essex would have had to get another player in. Within a year and a half I was playing for England, so I don’t regret it at all. If I was a second-team player, I probably would have gone to uni. The problem now is if you do take a little bit more time out, the other guy next to you, who does all the extra sessions with the academy, might get on. The rewards now for playing professional sport, especially cricket, are greater than they were.

MB Yet you get very anxious if you’re not playing very well, both individually and as a team…

AC Because you’re only on very short-term deals, aren’t you? The one thing about professional sport is it’s all about results, and at the end of the day, if someone is employing you and you’re not scoring runs or you’re not taking wickets, they ain’t going to carry on doing it, and there’s no any other way of saying that; that’s unfortunately the ruthless business of professional sport.

MB Do you enjoy being captain?

AC Yes, I enjoy a lot of the on-field stuff, and the dressing room stuff. Whether we have won, lost or drawn. But I’m not a massive fan of the external stuff… I’m not too keen on that. I enjoy it once you’ve got the whites on, and you’re in the dressing room, and you’re trying to plot the opposition’s downfall.

MB And you don’t feel it gets too much at times? Sometimes it does, doesn’t it? When somebody puts on 150 for the last wicket…

AC Yes, there are absolutely moments when you’re running out of ideas, and you do genuinely feel sorry for the bowlers when you keep asking them to run in again on a flat wicket, when partnerships get away from you, especially at the tail, which is one of the big differences in the modern game.

MB What about managing personalities? I thought that the team was very important when it came to managing a difficult personality, people who could be difficult. Players like Boycott and Botham, who had their difficulties, but on the other hand they had great assets as well. But strong characters in the team are very good at not letting someone get too much above themselves, you know?

AC Or take too much away from what the team’s trying to do. So when you’ve got a good team, you have a lot more people on that bus…

MB I have often wondered, actually, if the Australians aren’t better than the average English team at confronting people head-on. I think the British are known by the French as “the hypocrite race”. I have known players talk behind their hands about other players, which is snide but shrewd.

There are no flies on most good English professional cricketers, they are shrewd people – but whether one would hope for a bit more up-front confrontation from time to time… This is to bring up the dreaded letters KP.

AC We probably don’t need to drag it up again!

MB Sorry! But it’s in the back of the mind when you talk about managing personalities. Cricket is still the same game, the same 6oz ball being hurled 22 yards at 90mph, but when the team’s winning, it’s just… easier.

AC It is. But it doesn’t mean there are fewer problems. There are still problems when you win, but they are nicer problems. I think as a captain, when you’re performing, it makes you more confident certainly. Even when you’re just talking to people, you feel more at home. It becomes a challenge when you’re saying one thing and you’re not quite able to deliver yourself – it’s very difficult.

MB Do you think that charisma is the same thing as leadership?

AC I think you’re asking the wrong person there!

MB Because for me it’s not the same thing. Charisma, as I take it, means a sort of ready followability, a sort of gracefulness, an exciting personality – and of course those things can help. Someone like Tony Greig had it and he was a good captain, and you would follow him because you wanted to. But he had a lot of other qualities as well, which were at least as important – conscientiousness, thoughtfulness, planning, care, consideration; those are not the qualities of an extrovert, necessarily.

AC The big thing is being yourself and doing it your way. So there was no point in Tony Greig doing it any other way and that was one of his great strengths – that was probably what made people follow him. But other people might do it differently. Andrew Strauss was a very different bloke, a lot less charismatic, but he put a lot of thought into it and he was often right, and you were prepared to follow him because of that.

But I think in terms of leadership, you have to do it your way and be natural all the time. Because you don’t choose to be captain, someone invites you to be captain, so they must see that leadership in you, in the dressing room, in your personality, even if sometimes you don’t. You may become captain, but you do not know everything.

MB All I know is there is a huge amount of luck in it! The other thing that’s different is, in my day you had experience. I captained Middlesex for six or seven years before I played for England. Do you wish you’d had some of that experience?

AC Yes, absolutely. Of course I wish I did. Without a doubt, you become a far better leader the more you do.

MB You could be coming into the best years. I hope you are! Who knows. But if you win it will be 50 per cent you and 50 per cent luck. Probably more luck, though…

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The Ashes begins this Wednesday (8th July) at 10.00am