Only victory will do for Cook
Winning will be everything tomorrow for Alastair Cook, who sees NatWest Series success as a signpost to greater achievements on the world stage for his developing England one-day team.
Cook acknowledges the series decider against Sri Lanka at Old Trafford as a ’cup final’, but also as an early acid test of England’s improvement, and their chances in the longer term at International Cricket Council tournaments.
After inheriting the captaincy from Andrew Strauss, Cook’s brief is to help oversee a continued upward curve in England’s 50-over graph.
A 3-2 verdict over the team who knocked Strauss’ England out of this year’s World Cup - with a 10-wicket quarter-final win in Colombo - would be a handy start to Cook’s reign.
He was initially embattled by critics who thought his own batting potentially ineffective in the shorter formats.
Cook himself insists he never had any such doubts, and went some way to proving many wrong with his boundary-laden 95 not out in England’s 10-wicket win at Trent Bridge on Wednesday.
Even so, he is not about to get complacent on that subject - and will not tolerate any premature satisfaction either from any of his team-mates.
“There’s no reason we can’t improve how we bat,” he said. “We are not satisfied with where we are now.
“If we want to really improve as a one-day side and compete in World Cups and big tournaments, everyone needs to raise their game. That’s what is required of everyone.”
Cook’s motivation will always come from his self-improvement mantra - rather than a desire to prove others wrong, even if he has been irked by some of those who were quick to judge his perceived limitations as a limited-overs batsman.
“It’s not sticking it to critics; it’s about scoring runs at the top of the order and helping England win,” he said.
His record, unbeaten opening stand of 171 with Craig Kieswetter in Nottingham was very encouraging - but Cook wants more, from everyone.
“I hope tomorrow, in a one-off game, our skills can be like they were at Trent Bridge. The only thing that’s important is winning the game.
“We as an England side need to win. If we don’t win, we look at areas where we want to improve and work at them.”
Cook is content, however, that - even if there is disappointment in Manchester - some progress has already been made.
“There’s been good movement in the right direction,” he said. “No matter what happens and the result tomorrow as a side, what I talked about at the beginning and how we’re going to improve, it’s taken time to do that.
“I think we’ve investigated where we want to improve, but at the end of the day you have to win. As a side if you want to go on and win competitions – ICC World Cups and events – you have to put a good run together.”
To that end, England are hoping conditions suit them again tomorrow.
A mixed forecast is arguably in their favour - Sri Lanka have struggled whenever cloud and rain have played their part this summer - and a pacy pitch to play to England’s strengths is again on their wish-list.
“I think there was a directive sent out by [ECB managing director] Hugh Morris at the beginning of the year, suggesting what wickets we would like. As an English side, we always want carry on the wicket.”
Specifically at Old Trafford, however, the surface is likely to be an unknown quantity for all - because the square was turned 90 degrees in the close season, meaning its previous nature may be a thing of the past.
“There used to be pace and carry, and I think that may change the characteristics by turning the pitch around,” said Cook, who left open the possibility of even including Samit Patel as an extra spinner tomorrow.
As for his own batting, he believes his break from one-day international cricket - while England explored other options - has been of great benefit to him in all formats.
“I know I can score that quickly,” he added. “It’s taken a couple of years at Essex working there and playing one-day cricket away from international cricket to make me expand my game.
“It has had a big effect on my Test career, and now I’m starting to prove to myself and everyone else that I do have the tempo at the top of the order.”
Sri Lanka must put Wednesday’s top-order collapse, principally to James Anderson, behind them if they are to be competitive tomorrow.
Captain Tillakaratne Dilshan was one of those who fell to Anderson - and he is making it a priority to quell the threat from England’s pace spearhead.
Counter-attack, it seems, may be the preferred method for the tourists, who will be without fast bowler Suranga Lakmal due to a side strain.
“Anderson is the key man for their bowling attack,” said Dilshan. “If we can play him, it might be we have a good chance to put some runs on the board.
“It might be to play some shots, who knows? It might be different tactics tomorrow.”