Monday 23 April 2018

Unlikely heroes who overcame all odds

England captain Alastair Cook celebrates after winning the Fourth Test and the Ashes
England captain Alastair Cook celebrates after winning the Fourth Test and the Ashes

Vic Marks

Ovid might have been wary of including such a tale in his Metamorphoses. In March, it was a shambles. England had just been knocked out of the World Cup; Australia had just won it. A long, long summer was in prospect.

The new chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Colin Graves, flexed his muscles, specifically his larynx. Like many modern chairmen in the cricket world, he is an outstandingly successful businessman, who presumed that his acumen automatically stretched to cricketing matters. He opined about many of them, in particular that Kevin Pietersen might be recalled to the England lineup if he prospered in county cricket. In a trice a whopping headache for England returned and another summer of interminable angst about Pietersen was on the horizon.

Whereupon Graves played a blinder. Since then he has disappeared into purdah. Not a word has been heard. Thus the impression grows that Graves has started to do rather a good job for the English game. Andrew Strauss was appointed as cricket director, probably not Graves's initial choice, but certainly the preference of the new chief executive, Tom Harrison. Yet, his first few days in office did not bode well.

It just so happened Strauss arranged to meet Pietersen the day he had hit a triple century against Leicestershire, to tell him he would not be considered for selection in the foreseeable future.

It all looked chaotic and then, even worse, when we heard that Strauss had suggested to Pietersen he might become some sort of consultant to the one-day team, an offer that was bound to be refused.

Days earlier, Strauss had sacked Peter Moores, a predictable decision and a logical one if a new broom was required. The problem for the ECB was that Moores, a doughty, loyal servant, albeit an unsuccessful one, learned of his sacking via the media.

Thereafter, Strauss, manifestly a good appointment if ever the Pietersen saga could be put to rest, has not put a foot wrong. His next critical task was to find a replacement for Moores. From this vantage point he has found a very good one, even if Trevor Bayliss wasn't the best-known choice.

The frontrunner seemed to be Yorkshire's Jason Gillespie. Perhaps he would also have done an excellent job. But Strauss recognised that coaching a cricket team is not all about charisma and the ability to deliver stirring calls to arms. Calmness, competence and experience in the job are more important. Bayliss possessed all these qualities and it was reassuring that every witness from Australia and Sri Lanka was of the same mind. He now seems a good choice to the vast majority of Englishmen as well.

The link with Paul Farbrace was also extremely neat. Farbrace had worked as Bayliss's No2 with Sri Lanka. These two know each other well and there is a reservoir of mutual trust.

Hence, Farbrace could inform the England camp they had someone special on the way; he could also give Bayliss the lowdown on the squad.

During the period when Farbrace was the caretaker coach for the matches against New Zealand at the start of the summer, something special happened. Somehow the fear was removed, a vital component for success at international level and an incredibly difficult one to achieve.

In part this was due to a bolder approach to selection. While Moores may have been talking about playing with fearless freedom in those final months, his selections told a different story. He recalled Gary Ballance at the 11th hour to bat at three in the World Cup; he shunned the option of experimenting with Adil Rashid for the Barbados Test. Knowing he was holding the reins for six weeks, there was more conviction about Farbrace's stated determination to have a go without worrying too much about the consequences. The players responded enthusiastically.

Finally, there is the Alastair Cook factor. Strauss was always going to stick with him as the Test captain for this series and, as his former opening partner, he may well be the ideal confidant. Cook's captaincy has been pilloried unrelentingly over the past 18 months. He has never been as bad a captain as his critics have insisted.

It helps that Cook's batting form has returned, even if he has not been prolific. This is mirrored by the excellence of his catching, despite one spill in this match. There was a time when there was always the conundrum of where to stick Cook in the field. Now he is the most dependable of first slips.

Cook has shown remarkable resolve and, at last, there are tangible rewards, albeit with the clutching of a tiny urn. This is now his Test team and it is likely to remain so until the runs dry up.


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