Alastair Cook is under orders to lead England with a new aggressive intent – but when it comes to his record-breaking batting, the management advice is to stick to what you know.
Cook could do little wrong as captain in England’s 169-run win in the first Ashes Test in Cardiff, where a series of bowling and field changes kept paying off.
For good measure, he took three important catches and provided the ‘assist’ for a fourth, parrying a cut from gully to Adam Lyth at slip as England surged to victory inside four days.
With the bat, though, he added just 32 in two attempts to the 9,000 which already put him out on his own as England’s all-time top Test runscorer.
There was a suspicion too, in his eagerness to try to attack Nathan Lyon by going up the wicket, that he was prepared to update the methods which have served him so well for so long in order to be part of the tactical revolution on his watch.
Yet as coach Trevor Bayliss reflected on England’s heartening start to the Ashes, in the first match of his tenure, he hinted he will be happiest if Cook and Ian Bell – with their 49 Test centuries between them – simply stay true to themselves.
Bell, who returned to form with a second-innings half-century after a worrying slump, has a more expansive style in any case.
But Bayliss is understandably wary of trying to ‘mend’ two run machines which are not broken.
“My message to Alastair Cook is to go out and play his own way,” he said. “Certainly, people like Alastair and Belly have scored plenty of Test hundreds.
“My advice to them would be to go out and bat like you always have done.
“Those two guys are class players and can change their game to suit any situation. The rest of the guys can bat around them.”
England will head to Lord’s for the second Test, starting on Thursday, with an unchanged 13-man squad and confidence that their new commitment to attack can work for them this summer.
Bayliss said: “Yes, we were talking as a group about being mentally aggressive – not necessarily trying to whack sixes and fours, but if you are mentally aggressive when those boundary balls do come along your feet are moving and you put them away.
“Sometimes, I suppose that message can take a little bit of time to sink in.”
To that end, Cook is his key ally to smooth the bumps of transition – and if the gameplan is reflected to a degree in modifications to his own batting, England’s new Australian coach understands why.
He added: “He is a very calm operator and very well-respected by the players in the team. He is obviously a fantastic batsman.
“He didn’t score as many runs in this match as he would like, (but) I thought his approach in the first innings – even though he only got 20 – sent a bit of a message to the rest of the players that here was the captain who was trying to be that positive batsman.
“(He was) maybe a little bit out of his comfort zone, that he was trying to show the way. Most of the good captains around are not only leaders of the team, but they lead the way in their attitude.”
More instinctive shot-makers lie a little further down the order, while with the ball, Bayliss sees Mark Wood as a perfect fit for new England.
He said: “Woody is a little bit of a joker, very light-hearted, always got a smile on his face.
“That type of approach rubs off on other people as well. But behind that he is one hell of a bowler.”
Wood is only three matches into his Test career, but has made a fine impression, not least on Bayliss, who believes he has all the key attributes of a successful international seamer.
“He can get the ball through at reasonably good pace; he moves the ball; he changes his angle on the crease; he makes the batter think and puts pressure on him.
“For him to come on after (Stuart) Broad and (James) Anderson is one of the advantages we’ve got.”
The challenge for Cook is to keep getting the best out of one and all as England seek to regain the urn lost 5-0 in Australia two winters ago. A stalking-horse captain-in-waiting is easy to identify in his deputy and Cardiff man-of-the-match Joe Root.
But in the medium term at least, Bayliss appears confident the line of command is as it should be with Cook in charge on the pitch.
“The one thing you would say is: ‘Is there anyone to take his place?’,” he said.
“Joe Root is the vice-captain, and I’m sure he will do a good job in the future some time.
“It may be a little early for him as yet, but he’s been given the job as vice-captain to learn.
“I think that the decision to stick with Alastair has been justified, because his captaincy in this game was fantastic.”
Scorecard: Page 11.