Poll: Backed Cook is freed to play ‘without fear’

Alastair Cook has expressed his gratitude to his England employers for their unqualified backing of him as World Cup captain.

Alastair Cook will lead England against Sri Lanka as they begin a seven-match ODI series.

Cook believes the remarks of national selector James Whitaker, on naming England’s squad two months ago to take on Sri Lanka in seven one-day internationals, will help him to play ‘without fear’ – as prescribed.

England’s management figures have spoken in the past week of the importance of that mentality, as their team embark on an undiluted winter of 50-over cricket en route to the World Cup early next year.

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After Cook had come in for much criticism of his ODI batting from various pundits at the end of last summer, it was Whitaker who spelled out that he is a “unique person and leader” who will unequivocally be in charge in Australia and New Zealand as well as Sri Lanka.

On the eve of his first assignment, today’s opening fixture at 
Colombo’s Premadasa Stadium in a seven-match series, Cook made it clear he is grateful for Whitaker’s remarks.

Asked if they were helpful to him, he said: “Yes, it stops a lot of speculation.

“We can go on now and concentrate on trying to improve ourselves as a one-day side.

“There’s always pressure to perform when you’re playing for England, whether you’re captain or (just) player.

“But in one-day cricket, you’ve got to try to take as much pressure off yourself as possible if you can – because you need to take those risks at the right time.”

It is set to be an occupational hazard for England to dodge the rainy season here, and Cook already appears resigned to shortened matches and the need to modify personnel and tactics accordingly with Moeen Ali pencilled in to open with him this morning.

But Cook added: “We can’t control the weather, and I’m not sure we’re going to be able to control it over the next couple of weeks. With the threat of shortened games, things might change on the day. We’re going to have to be flexible on that.”

There was another curveball for England when, in practice after their second warm-up match was washed out on Sunday, linchpin pace bowler Steven Finn hurt his groin.

Finn’s pain has eased over the past two days, and he was able to bowl at nets last night.

But England will make a late decision on his fitness, and may have to field an especially inexperienced pace attack with James Anderson and Stuart Broad already missing this tour because of knee injuries.

Cook is nonetheless broadly optimistic. He said: “I think we’ve made some really good progress in this week and a half.

“We’ve talked a good game so far in meetings and nets, and I could not ask the lads for any more effort. But the crux of the matter is how we pull up (today), and how we play.”

There will be heightened motivation for England’s hosts Sri Lanka as both teams seek to kick-start their World Cup winters.

Not only will Sri Lanka be keen to erase the memory of their 5-0 trouncing by India earlier this month, but there is the prospect of a final series on home soil for three of their greatest batsmen.

Mahela Jayawardene has already announced his Test retirement and will play on in 50-over cricket only until the World Cup early next year, Kumar Sangakkara is expected to follow suit, and opener Tillakaratne Dilshan is also in the veteran stage.

Lahiru Thirimanne is among the younger group of batsmen who will need to take up the slack when the old guard moves aside.

In the present, though, the Sri Lanka vice-captain must complement his elders.

Thirimanne held the hosts’ press conference on the eve of the first of seven one-day internationals, in the absence of Angelo Mathews.

The captain has a minor stomach upset, but was not considered a doubt for the opening fixture at the Premadasa Stadium this morning.

As for Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Dilshan, Thirimanne said: “There’s a good chance it’s the last time they play at home. They are the foundation of our team. A lot of the time, they’ve been instrumental in our victories. I’m sure the fans will come in their numbers and support them in this series.”

Jayawardene has been keen, in recent times, to move up to open with Dilshan. But it seems Kusal Perera is pencilled in for that role against England.

“I don’t think Mahela will play as an opener in the first match, but he is always ready to bat wherever the team needs him,” said Thirimanne.

“Kusal Perera is there. We haven’t picked the XI yet, but it’s likely that we’ll have a left-hand/right-hand combination.”

It is further down the list that Thirimanne appears to sense a possible weakness with fast bowler Lasith Malinga out injured.

Fears as Hughes requires life support machine: Page 23.