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?