After being given the luxury of six weeks to decide his future, Alastair Cook has finally decided that he has no future … as captain at least. He announced today that he’s stepping down from the role. Giving in to his critics can’t have been easy but it’s undoubtedly the right thing to do.
Although the captaincy never really suited Cook – it always struck me that he was made skipper because of his background and squeaky clean image rather than an ability to lead and inspire – he ended up captaining England in more tests than any other player. It’s an odd statistic as I doubt even his greatest cheerleaders would describe him as anything other than an adequate field general.
In my humble opinion captaincy was a role Alastair never looked comfortable in. The often repeated cliche that he ‘leads from the front’ says it all. He was never one for inspirational speeches or tactical masterstrokes – all he could do was go out there, bat all day, set an example, and hope others followed. It’s the very minimum a test cricket captain should provide. In fact, it’s the minimum every single senior player should provide.
So how will history remember Cook? It’s no surprise that Andrew Strauss, his philosophical twin, today described him as ‘one of our country’s greatest captains’. This is pure hyperbole of course. Cook the captain might be lauded for his longevity but everyone knows he’s a long way short of being England’s greatest. Indeed, a big reason why Cook captained England for so long is because there simply wasn’t anyone else. Indeed, this is probably the slogan that should be etched upon his captaincy’s gravestone.
The truth is that Cook was both a success and a failure as England captain. He was successful because he kept scoring runs (albeit fewer centuries) in the role. This is no mean feat. His performances with the bat in India back in 2012 were nothing short of superhuman. He should also be remembered for leading England to Ashes wins at home in 2013 and 2015, plus that surprising (if a tad fortuitous) victory in South Africa a year ago.
However, Cook also endured humiliation at the hands of these foes. The recent tours to India and Bangladesh were a shambles that ended in embarrassment. Cook’s flaccid captaincy and poor form with bat played a big role in these capitulations. Meanwhile, although Alastair led England to some team successes against the Proteas, his form with the bat against South Africa’s fearsome pace attack has always been subpar – averaging 31 in eight tests away from home and just 35 overall.
What’s more, Cook’s Ashes record is also extremely mixed. Although he skippered the side to wins in the last two home Ashes series, and played brilliantly down under in 2010/11, he averages just 29.6 with the bat at home against the old enemy (with zero centuries). And as a captain, he’ll mostly be remembered for that horrific 0-5 whitewash in which England completely fell apart both on and off the pitch. We need no reminding that Alastair was the only person at the heart of that debacle who survived.
The fact Cook survived the fallout of that Ashes disaster made me simultaneously admire him and somewhat resent him. I really think that KP-gate would have buried most men. The fact that he weathered the storm, and kept plugging away, despite a huge amount of criticism, says a great deal about his resolve. The fact he survived, and briefly helped to turn the team’s fortunes around, is extremely impressive.
However, unfortunately I can’t forget the way the establishment rallied around him either – especially as there seemed no reason, other than favouritism, why they should do so. Having put Cook on a pedestal for the duration of his career – and who can forget Giles Clarke’s stomach-churning remark about Alastair coming from the right sort of family – the ECB seemed to portray him as a champion of virtue and an antidote to the evil Pietersen. Not for the first time in his career, Cook was afforded luxuries other players never get. Why? Well, perhaps we should take Giles Clarke at his word.
Although Cook survived this saga, which was surely one of the most embarrassing political fallouts in English cricket’s history, the end has finally come three years later. Once again he was given a rare luxury (the ability to choose his own fate over a lengthy six period) but I won’t let this cloud my assessment of Cook’s tenure. After all, the bare statistics speak for themselves:
Alastair Cook led England to the second (equal) most test wins ever
Alastair Cook led England to the most test defeats ever.
There is no escaping this legacy. Cook’s record is mixed. Was he a good captain? No. Was he a terrible one? No (although he was occasionally terrible). Should he be applauded for steering England through some difficult times? Both yes and no. After all, the storm after the Ashes whitewash was partly of his making.
I guess I’d summarise Alastair’s tenure like this: over the last ten years Cook has become a fact of life of English cricket. He was anointed as England’s latest FEC (future England captain) at an early age – despite showing no particular aptitude or desire for the job – and he got the chance to fulfil his destiny when Andrew Strauss stepped down. As far as I’m concerned he did his stint in charge and now he’s gone. It’s that simple. I won’t remember him fondly but I won’t say ‘good riddance’ either.
My ambivalence might seem strange for someone who has written extensively about Cook over the years. And yes, it does seem a bit odd. The truth is that I’m too conflicted to write either a eulogy or something less flattering.
As an England supporter I’ll always be grateful for Cook’s runs. We’d have been lost without him (especially in recent times). However, I’ve always found English cricket’s infatuation and hero worship of Cook extremely cringeworthy. And I don’t think it’s always been deserved – although ‘deserved’ is the wrong word because Cook never asked for any of this adulation. I guess the exaggerations and the hyperbole just irritate me.
The bottom line is that Cook has always been a good but not great batsman. And he’s always been a very average captain. But in the coming days I fully expect to read reams of tripe comparing him to Mike Brearley and WG Grace. And therein lies the problem. The hype around him – an adulation I’ve always found a touch bizarre and a little nauseating – has ruined Alastair Cook for me.
And am I the only one who finds it weird that they haven’t named Cook’s successor? They’ve only had six weeks to make a decision. It’s almost like the country needs a period of national mourning before we can gradually, reluctantly, and with heavy hearts, finally move on.
Anyway, at least Alastair can now go back to doing what he does best – opening the batting. And at least we can put this debate about his leadership qualities, and the precise amount of iron in his rod, to bed. At last.
It’s not before time. Anyone else would’ve been asked to resign immediately after Chennai.