Alastair Cook: A Protected Species?

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English cricket’s critics have often claimed that the ECB is too cosy. There’s a perception the board is elitist, somewhat insular, and operates a bit like an old boys’ club. Whilst this might be something of an exaggeration, the ECB sure seem to like their favourites. If your face fits, and you don’t rock the boat, you’ll probably go far … just ask James Whitaker.

Giles Clarke’s famous remark that Alastair Cook was ‘a very good role model and he and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be’ summed it up really. We’d all suspected the ECB were a bit stuffy for a long time, but here was clear proof, in black and white, that class (or image) played a role in the ECB’s decision making. Was looking the part, and sounding the part, actually more important than being able to play the part?

I’ve written extensively about Alastair Cook over the years. I find him fascinating. He’s often been portrayed as an alpha male even though he stutters in front of the cameras and is far too ‘nice’ to be a macho man. And through no fault of his own he’s long had the nation’s hopes fastened to his shoulders – even though he’s never really shown any aptitude to be a leader whatsoever. He’s certainly not a natural one.

Cook has always been treated as a precious commodity – like an aunt’s favourite antique vase – throughout his career. He’s supposedly strong yet extremely sensitive to criticism; he wields an iron rod yet the best observers can say about his captaincy is that he ‘leads from the front’. Basically Alastair is a paradox.

And of course, when he’s suffered prolonged periods of poor form (and appeared technically brittle) he’s always been given extra time to turn it around – a luxury few other openers have had. I’ve often wondered whether this is because he’s a harmless and genuine guy – in other words he’s made a lot of friends and everyone wishes him well  – or whether it’s some kind of bias or favouritism at play?

Although Cook’s supporters might argue that England have kept faith because his record suggests runs are just around the corner, try telling that to the likes of Graham Thorpe, who was dumped unceremoniously before the 2005 Ashes despite having an injection a few days beforehand that was supposed to see him through the international summer. Thorpe hadn’t even stopped scoring runs. If you’re slightly abrasive, anti-establishment (or something of a loner) you always seem to get a shorter rope in English cricket. Alastair on the other hand, with his good manners and quintessentially Waitrose persona, seems to have friends in high places.

Once again history seems to be repeating itself. Despite making a pig’s ear of his last three test series in charge, in which he made some mind-boggling tactical decisions and appeared somewhat disinterested / weary in the field, there’s still no apparent desire to sack Cook (or at least ask him to resign). Indeed many pundits are nonsensically arguing that Alastair has earned the right to determine his own future.

I find this last bit utterly bizarre. In professional sport careers are defined by results and results alone. In what other sport would someone who’s failing badly in their role be allowed the luxury of determining their own future? Even Sir Alf Ramsey was eventually sacked. Sport is a cutthroat business … unless you’re Alastair Cook it seems.

Like many people I belief Cook’s position is untenable. And I simply don’t understand why he’s still being treated like a special case. None of England’s other recent (long-term) captains got away with such a long period of depressing team form, so why should Alastair be any different? Here are the records of England’s other captains immediately before they either resigned or were privately pushed:

Michael Vaughan won 4, drew 4 and lost 4

Nasser Hussain won 4, drew 3 and lost 5

Andrew Strauss won 3, drew 2, lost 6

Cook’s record in his last 11 tests is won 3, drawn 1, lost 7. That’s worse (and in some cases substantially worse) than all England’s previous leaders … none of whom survived the aftermath of a big series loss (let alone a humiliation in Bangladesh). Yet once again Cook is the exception.

Cook’s recent record is very nearly as bad as the ill fated and very short-lived tenure of Andrew Flintoff, whose record was won 2, drawn 2 and lost 7. And of course, whereas Freddy was unable to survive an Ashes whitewash, England actually sacked their best batsmen to protect Cook after his team were thrashed 0-5. It’s one rule for Cook and quite another for everyone else.

What’s more (and this is the thing I find hardest to understand) it’s not exactly like Cook should be living off past glories either. He has always been an adequate captain at best. In fact, his overall record is the worst of all his immediate predecessors.

Cook – won 24, drawn 13, lost 22 (59 games)

Strauss – won 24, drawn 11, lost 15 (50 games)

Vaughan – won 26, drawn 14, lost 11 (51 games)

Hussain – won 17, drawn 13, lost 15 (45 games)

Although Alastair’s record is pretty similar to Hussian’s (and his win percentage is fractionally higher) let’s not forget that England were ranked dead last in the world in Nasser’s early years as skipper. Naz and Duncan Fletcher grabbed a poor team by the scruff of the neck and made them very respectable. By contrast Cook has taken a team that were ranked number 1 in the world not long before he took charge and arguably taken them backwards.

As I said earlier in this piece, I have always been fascinated by what I once called the cult of Alastair Cook. Sometimes I think his career very clearly demonstrates the foibles of the ECB: its curious worldview, fondness for all-English boys, and suspicion and distain for outsiders. Or perhaps Alastair has just been very lucky in that he’s played in a period where England have had no realistic alternative captains? Just like there were no alternative test quality openers when he endured his alarming slumps in form.

This, I guess, is what I’m going to refer to as the Cook Conundrum from now on. Why is it that the worst captain England have had in recent times is also our longest serving captain? It’s a ridiculous state of affairs when one puts it so simply.

And yet still the ECB seem in no rush whatsoever to move on from Cook. Even though, for the first time in a long time, a viable alternative candidate is ready and waiting to take over – a potential captain who not only has an aggressive mind-set that dovetails far better with England’s coach and attacking young players, but a potential captain who could also lead the side in all three formats (and so bring balance to The Force).

And yet people are still finding conservative reasons to hold Root back. And it’s all to prolong the reign of England’s longest serving yet least effective leader of recent times. It’s more than a little weird, don’t you think?

James Morgan

69 Comments

  1. pktroll (@pktroll) on

    I know that there are nearly 6 months before England don whites again but there is no clear thinking, no leadership from the England management. It seems as though that at least some in their management want Cook to stay on? To me, if Cook stays on for the next year then I can see no better than at best, a shared series v SA (who are a pretty good away side and haven’t lost in England since 1998) and a very comprehensive win for Australia.

    There doesn’t seem to me to be a shared plan betweeen Cook and Bayliss, the latter favouring more attacking cricket with the former all too ready to listen to Anderson and carry out a bowling dry approach that hasn’t worked either. Of course the lack of specialist batsmen coming through is a bit of an issue and we need to find a genuine fast bowler or 2 to invest in.

    In many respects I don’t blame Cook for much of this. I thought he should have been sacked 3 years ago at the end of the whitewash. Yet the ECB decided that their version of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ was to invest in Cook as captain for their bright future. Well that bright future since Jan 2014 is W15 D7 L16. It is the ECB who continued to ‘invested’ in him and at various points, post the Sri Lanka 2014 series and the 4th day debacle at Headingley, the drawn series v West Indies, we were still subjected to the stuff about ‘inner steel, ‘there is no alternative’ in what were graphic illustrations of a man who doesn’t have a clue when opposition batsmen show signs of a bit of grit. Then there are a large number of journalists who have been a pathetic embarrasment in promoting him to this mythical being as you right say , James. What we have now is a bit of a mess and if it doesn’t get sorted out soon things could potentially ruin several decent and promising player in my opinion. But, you need to get the most out of them and with the set-up as it is I just can’t see it.

    I do give credit to Cook for showing some signs of improvement in the last Ashes series and the SA away series last year, but when things have been tougher he just doesn’t seem to have the imagination to manage his bowlers and take the attacking option when necessary. And then there is his batting impact, 5 tons in the last 48 games anyone? There you go, I’m pessimistic at the best of times but I am more so at the moment.

  2. The simple explanation is that from the episode of Blackadder featuring the Baby Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells. Cook has the preliminary sketches of Strauss in a compromising position.

    More seriously, I remain of the view that Cook’s longevity is as much to do with a lack of alternatives as anything else. Whilst Root may be the anointed successor, he has no captaincy experience and a personality which, whilst likeable, resembles Stokes Lite. And it is difficult to see any alternative to Root as most players either are uncertain of their test place, ageing or ruled out despite a decent captaincy record (Woakes). And there are those with the flaky temperament such as Moeen Ali (who I much admire – but not as skipper!) and Botham’s Mini-Me, Stokes.

    More than anything this situation is a condemnation of the failure of the ECB to plan properly for Cook’s successor. When replacing a CEO you start years in advance and ensure there are several possible candidates. The ECB could not plan a calendar years in advance.

    • I agree with all of this but it would be easier to plan for a replacement captain if there was a likely looking talent pool from which to choose.

      Apart from Root the well looks dry and as you say he is untried. To my mind he doesn’t look a lot more suitable than Cook ever did. We are back where we started. There is no other.

      • You’ve hit the nail on the head Jenny. If county cricket is the feeder for the test team, the ECB should be in there raising standards and planning ahead. Can’t believe that, in a country of over 60 million people, cricket struggles to produce one spinner and one person with captaincy skills.

        • Madaboutcricket on

          The struggles are not limited to cricket but it does t appear to interest anyone to actually deal with the many reasons as to why.

          • Its not a problem for just England.
            Australia, NZ & SA can barely produce a spinner either

            As for a captain, players get promoted to test cricket these days so quickly that they learn at that stage.
            You’ve no idea who’s capable until you try them. Kohli, Smith & Williamson would have barely captained outside of the national sides.
            Root looks a natural to me, but you won’t know until you try. Cook never looked a natural.

      • Cook had very little captaincy experience when he took the job either. But that didn’t stop him being thrust into the role.

        • I’m not sure if this is true for county cricket but In the old days when we played less international cricket, Australian players could be both state captain and test cricketers. Thus players could gain captaincy experience at first class level and then graduate to captain of the test team. In fact, some players were simultaneously captain of their state and of the Australian team. It seems these days that there is little chance for a player from any country learning the ropes of captaincy at first class level before being thrust into the job of captain of the test side.

          • Yes that was indeed the case in county cricket. Think it stopped with Atherton (don’t remember him captaining Lancs) and then with the advent of central contracts they barely play.

            Of course Cook will have about 8 championship games this summer but he’s not Essex captain.

  3. The trailing of possible dates by the media for the meeting between Strauss and Cook but lack of any news of the outcome is a puzzle. There’s almost certainly stuff going on behind the scenes (while the ODIs in India and speculation about Morgan’s future provide a convenient smoke screen). Here’s another theory as to what might be happening, which is of course pure unfounded speculation on my part. What if the review meeting has in fact taken place? What if Strauss actually did tell Cook (all softly softly) that everyone could see that the captaincy was placing a strain on him and suggest that – particularly in view of recent results for the team – now might be a good time to stand down with dignity and let Joe have his chance, but that he wanted Chef to stay on, rekindle his batting mojo, go on to smash every record in the book and help England get back to No.1 in the World? What if Cook’s reaction was to come over all Mr Petulant Entitlement, accuse Strauss of betrayal, say like Hell he’d stay on if he lost the captaincy and defy Strauss to sack him? Effectively there would now be a Mexican stand-off in progress: Strauss with the power to sack vs. Cook with the contacts to (as Malcolm Tucker put it) “marshal all the media forces of darkness” to ensure that Strauss and the ECB would be demonised for having supposedly driven out (ahem) England’s greatest ever player. I mean it would have to work out that way, wouldn’t it? The MSM hacks would look even more idiotic than they already do in respect of their coverage of Cook if they all suddenly did an about face and said that actually he’s a bit overrated and that no one player is bigger than the team. Perhaps I have an evil imagination, and obviously I don’t know whether Cook wants to remain at the helm or not, but just thought I’d throw this scenario out there for what it’s worth.

  4. Joe Root has today, again stood up for Cook as captain. Is Joe not up for the captaincy then? If not, Strauss should look elsewhere. Not much progress if Cook remains because the vice captain isn’t interested.

    • Brezhnev was outwardly loyal to Khrushchev before the latter was got rid of. At least that’s what Sky (sorry, did I say “Sky”? I meant of course “Pravda”) reported. I wouldn’t get too hung up on these public statements of loyalty. Although I would be a touch concerned if it emerged that Root really does thinks Cook is a great captain. That would not be a hopeful sign.

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