Cook must bring the joy back
Tomorrow, in Scotland of all places, the renewal begins. After a winter of discontent, the summer of dreams has a starting block in Aberdeen. There may be more cricket clubs per capita in Scotland than in England but not many are much good (a Scottish cousin told me that). The weather is a threat - it can be pretty fresh up there in the spring - and the locals have nothing to lose, which is always a bummer for the favourites, especially away from home. Still, Peter Moores has had a week to lick the lads into white-ball shape and by Saturday morning the ghost of the Dutch should be back in his eyrie.
Alastair Cook has again admitted that he was close to handing in his papers after the tour of Australia, not that anyone doubted the seriousness of his intention at the time. Rarely, if ever, can a tour have taken so much out of one man and in so many different ways. A shadow of himself with the bat, increasingly helpless in the field, pale and pained, though never without dignity, in front of the media, and, by the end, pining for home and for Alice, his pregnant wife, it was Cook who best illustrated England's suffering.
He was, of course, badly let down. But that is old ground and to cover it again serves no purpose. When asked to continue in the job by Paul Downton, he accepted within the parameters of a few conditions and now they are in place, he is moving forward with a freshness born of a smiling baby daughter and a long break from the game.
The captain of England is making plenty of runs for Essex and says he is enjoying playing the other game, the one we all still play, where you write Test teams on bits of paper and tinker with them for as long as sanity prevails. Let's join in. The core of a competitive side remains intact. Cook himself, and Ian Bell with the bat, Matt Prior with the gloves (the captain appears to think Prior will be fit by early June) and both Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad with the ball. We assume that Joe Root and Ben Stokes are in this mix too. Thus four more players are needed but they are not immediately obvious. Nick Compton, Sam Robson, James Taylor and James Vince each offer something different and promising with the bat. Steve Finn and Graham Onions remain a class above other fast bowlers. Ask a good county batsman who he least likes to face and he will say Onions, though most add that the Finn of a couple of years back was a mighty proposition. If it is pace we are after, the circuit says Tymal Mills has Mitchell Johnson wheels. The "heavy ball" bowlers are Chris Jordan and Jamie Overton. Others who get a tick for attitude and potential are Harry Guerney and Chris Wright.
Sadly, there is no spinner to catch the eye. A surprising number of county batsmen suggest reverting to Simon Kerrigan, whose debut at The Oval last summer was an excruciating embarrassment. There is a voice for Scott Borthwick but not as a sole purveyor, more of a Harlem Globetrotter option when the conditions are clearly in his favour. Moeen Ali is given a strong reference: tidy with ball, impressive with bat. Maybe he is the one then.
English cricket will have to get over Graeme Swann. The luxury of a big-spinning, wicket-taking, slip-catching, run-making, main-chance-taking, match-winning and media-savvy frontline slow bowler has gone to the great microphone in the commentary box. Moeen, it is over to you. Keep it tight at one end while the big guns blaze away at the other. Make yourself famous Moeen, it is your time.
But it is the personnel rather than the ethos that will interest fans and critics in the coming months. The real frustration in losing the Ashes was less the loss, more the nature of the capitulation. This summer, and if not then, certainly the next year will establish whether Cook is the man to lead England's mission of revenge in 2015, when the Aussies are back in England once more. Outwardly there is something vanilla about Cook. Only on the inside will you find the ruthless man. This introspection does not a captain make, so he must tinker with his own characteristics in order to get those around him playing effective and committed cricket.
On the one hand he must show the team the value of the family farm, where working the land and the livestock brings balance to his life. On the other, he must get them so focused on cricket that they don't muck up sessions that cost Test matches. On a number of occasions in Australia, England held the upper hand only to relinquish it with feeble responses. Even in Melbourne, with both series and spirit gone, England led by more than a hundred with ten second-innings wickets in hand but, predictably, made a hash of it. That collapse and those that preceded and followed it were astonishing to watch. In the blink of an eye - a couple of days in Brisbane, to be more precise - the England cricket team lost its cohesion and direction. There seemed nothing left to give and certainly not for each other. Cook suspected as much post-Brisbane when asked if a collective will remained for the fight. He said he hoped so. How fragile we are.
Probably, and the theory has been well documented, the players were on the edge of a burnout of sorts. Too much high-intensity cricket over the previous couple of years and too much scientific analysis and preparation to go with it. In short, they had been micro-managed to within an inch of their enthusiasm. A story was told in these pages by David Hopps of a young England player who felt there was no escape from the ongoing assessment of every little thing that you do. He said it wore him down and ultimately made him fearful of expressing himself. Peter Moores will have listened to such stories and learned from them, for he was guilty of such head-masterly scrutiny last time round. These things happen with the best of intentions. Andy Flower and the impressive men around him wanted nothing more than the best for the team and from the team.
Cricketers do lead extraordinary, often overwhelming, lives. They are well rewarded but this does not guarantee performance. The key is to have the players rested, relaxed and focused. Each match must mean something special or they will all merge into one another and become a chore. An England cap is something to be treasured and enjoyed. It should neither become a burden, nor lead to arrogance. There is a case for winding back the clock a bit to the days when backroom staff meant a coach and a physiotherapist and the warm-down was conducted in conversation over a beer. This is not to render ice baths and analysis obsolete but to say that cricket has always reflected the rhythms of life, which allow room for people of all shapes and sizes, never mind approach and attitude.
If Cook can find a way to deregulate, he will alleviate some of the numbing routine that, often imperceptibly, can drive players into a shell of suspicion. His gift is to empower those players, encouraging expression through a free spirit. As they say in showbiz, to ensure they leave nothing out there, because years down the track, when the slippers are by the fire, even the most talented will look back and wonder why on earth they didn't make the most of their moment and do so with a smile on their face. After all, they are representing their country at cricket - surely the greatest privilege of all. It is with this in mind that Cook must set the course ahead.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK