His failure in the second innings at Antigua has heaped even more pressure on our beleaguered captain Alastair Cook. Regular TFT contributor Tregaskis takes a look at why Cook has become a lightning rod for so much criticism – not just for his own performances, but the blunders of the ECB in general. It is a provocative piece that explores the very concept of Englishness itself, and attempts to locate Cook’s predicament within this broader context.
If you have a different take on Alastair, and fancy writing a piece that defends him, we’d be delighted to hear from you. We publish articles based on the quality of the writing, not the opinions expressed. Thanks.
The nature of Englishness in modern Britain is an elusive even divisive abstraction. Perhaps the damned awkwardness of it all is the only thing that unites us. John Major famously eulogised it as warm beer, cricket on the village green and spinsters cycling to church on a Sunday.
Back in August 2013, the Mail’s Jonathan McEvoy hagiographed Alastair Cook as –
“The best of Englishness. Patriotic in a quiet sort of way, modest yet heroic, self-effacing but self-assured. In an age when the tawdry and the talentless pollute much of society, he stands for something precious in our national life.”
The accompanying photograph shows a despondent Cook trudging back to the pavilion after failing to make his rather dismal average for the series. The image captured the main theme of McEvoy’s article, essentially that the sainted skipper was not making runs. “Mr Stoic of Bedfordshire was caught behind and departed for 25,” has become an enduring motif for Cook these past two years.
In April 2014, Alastair Cook promulgated Englishness as the bedrock on which he hoped to rebuild the national team, without articulating what those qualities might be. While he excused his mission statement as being a bit wishy washy, it was obvious what he meant, innit. A cynic might be forgiven for thinking at the time that the overriding whiff of Englishness largely involved not smelling like a South African.
A month later and Giles Clarke added further elevation to Cook’s totemic status with a Blimpish observation from his Turkish bath –
“Gad, sir! Lord Bunk is right. Cook is 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.”
After a millenium and a half of evolving national character and 60 years of post-colonial hand-wringing, the essence of modern Englishness turned out to be nothing to do with drinking tea in a slightly self-deprecating manner. In the end, Englishness turned out to be definitively captured in the embodiment of Alastair Cook.
A couple of weeks ago, the England Test captain was lauded again, this time by Jim Holden in the Express –
“It is obvious to me and it should be obvious to anyone with the game’s best interests at heart, that this admirable cricketer must be at the centre of the renewal and regeneration that is now urgently required.”
To many it is not entirely obvious that Cook should be in the team, so why he should be central to England’s renewal and endless regeneration is a mystery that Holden annoyingly kept to himself. These pieces are articles of faith designed to uphold an ECB theocracy and irritate Richard Dawkins.
Trying to grasp the enigmatic credo is a riddle with no answer, but Jonathan McEvoy may have got closest to the central tenets. The Englishness that the ECB, and those caught in its orbit, are struggling to employ is Pre-Raphaelite – minutely detailed, backward looking and seeking a sporting ideal by drawing on a mythical past. It’s an antidote to the Picasso cricket that has brought energy and spontaneity and revolutionary ideas to successful teams beyond these shores.
Nineteenth-century ideas on national character are well represented in Sir Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada,” and Kipling’s “If.” Both poems capture the essence of late Victorian-era stoicism such as selfless devotion to duty and the stiff upper lip. In fact, Jonathan McEvoy’s description of Cook usurps stoicism from a society of long-dead poets and redeploys it as a force for good in the tawdry, desolate landscape that has blighted English cricket since, well, at least since text-gate.
A generation after “Vitaï Lampada” was published, Douglas Jardine wrecked English sporting stoicism by driving a coach and four through the prissy concept of heroic failure. According to Christopher Douglas, Jardine’s biographer, as a pupil at Winchester College, the young Jardine was “taught to be honest, impervious to physical pain, uncomplaining and civilised.” Newbolt and Kipling would have approved of the school motto, “evil to him who evil thinks.”
But Jardine was unashamedly elitist and also determined to win at any cost. He was widely disliked by the Australian public for his disdainful bearing and attitude. Jardine was the antithesis of Bradman’s humility of birth and extravagance of play. He despised the boorish Australian crowds for “reneging upon the imperial responsibilities of cricket.” In the third Test of the Bodyline series, Jardine purposefully went out to bat wearing the harlequin cap that signified his status as an Oxford cricketing Blue, and scored 56 runs in 4hours 15 minutes in an exhibition of deliberate tectonic slowness, just to annoy the natives.
Jardine did not give a stuff about stoicism. Triumph and Disaster were told to field in the cordon around square leg with Larwood steaming in and pitching it short and fast in line with leg stump. It was not heroic and it wasn’t even cricket according to Australian skipper Bill Woodfull, but Jardine’s win-at-all-costs attitude won back the Ashes. England did not win another Ashes series for twenty years.
Cook is as capable as Jardine of scoring a slow 56, but while Jardine’s crease occupation was a deliberate expression of amateur superiority, Cook’s recent efforts have exposed the limits of his professional abilities.
Had Giles Clarke said “Alastair Cook is very much the sort of person we want the England captain to look like,” we might have giggled a bit at the homoerotic sub-text or frowned at the suggestion that the ECB’s ideal English man is white and middle-class, but no one could deny that Cook is a looker. If the England captaincy were a non-speaking role, Cook would be the perfect ambassador for English cricket at sponsorship events and bar mitzvahs.
Andrew Anthony in the Guardian takes the opposite view believing Cook’s looks are a hindrance –
“To be a good captain it helps to look like a good captain. And perhaps this is an aspect of the game that Alastair Cook, through no fault of his own, may never find in his armoury.
“No one should doubt his courage or talent, both of which he has in abundance. But it just so happens that he looks like the former choirboy that, by coincidence, he is. … However, it’s not a look that will ever strike fear in the opposition, much less his team-mates. And unfortunately it’s the kind of look that fits too neatly with being sulky and needled, having succumbed, say, to Shane Warne’s provocations or losing the one-day England captaincy.”
Anthony has played with an idea here and got it horrendously and hilariously wrong. Cook is not sulky due to his matinee-idol looks. He is not whiny about “Shane Warne’s provocations” because he has a square jaw. Nor was his ungracious moaning about the Mankading of Jos Buttler due to his doey eyes. He did not complain about the decision of the selectors to drop him from the ODI squad because he is tall and winsome, and the buffness of his body did not lead inevitably to his besmirching the leadership qualities of Eoin Morgan.
In looking to blame everyone for his exclusion from the ODI world cup squad except his own poor form, Cook crossed a line in a way that Sachithra Senanayaka never did. Poor form twice over. He failed to separate his personal feelings from his responsibilities as the England Test captain. Gaurav Kalra, in a piece for ESPN Cricinfo, nailed the point when he analysed the meltdown of ICC President Mustafa Kamal during the recent world cup –
“Kamal claimed that his observations were made in a ‘personal capacity’. In doing so he ignored, wilfully or otherwise, one of the fundamental principles of holding public office: there is no separation of public and personal identities when you assume a position of high profile.”
These are matters of character and judgment. Cooky. Contagiously fails. Infectiously wails. Stoicism, for Cook, is a foreign land. He is too inclined to emotional outbursts. Had Brendon McCullum’s Gatling jammed en route to rescue Gordon, it is easy to imagine him grabbing the offending weapon and using it as a club to smash his way to Khartoum. One rather feels Cook’s first instinct would have been to pen a stiffly worded complaint to the adjutant-general.
He is no Bulldog Drummond, and while often characterized as determined, in Cook it is the stubbornness of a small child refusing to eat its greens. Admirable English stubbornness has an altogether different hue. Brian Close, in 1976, pummelled black and blue by a barrage of body blows from Roberts and Holding, but seeing out the day. Terry Butcher, bandaged, bloodied and unbowed defending the line against Sweden in 1989, or Martin Johnson, in 2003, rallying his intrepid 13-man team to defend against a fully wheeled All Black juggernaut.
Perhaps the apotheosis of a captain’s innings was Mike Atherton’s 185 not out in 643 minutes of gritty, attritional resistance that salvaged an unlikely draw at the Wanderers in 1995. It is all very well leading by example in the flush of team success. Sometimes, real leadership is revealed only in adversity, when the team is a busted flush and the situation is desperate. Cook has had opportunity aplenty this past year or so to show the measure of his leadership, and many of his detractors will argue that he has done precisely that.
Cook cannot be held entirely to blame. The tantrums, while low on the Richter scale, are often a default response when his sense of personal entitlement is frustrated. In fairness to the Test captain, he has earned a degree of entitlement, and he has deserved a little latitude. What prevents Cook from being wholly likeable and infuriates his avatar agnostics is that the sense of entitlement seems to have grown in inverse proportion to his performances. He has not been helped by the ECB, which has invested in him heavily as the antithesis to Pietersen, and protected his stock with hyperbole and rhetorical indulgence. They have been whispering slavishly in his ear, “remember you are a god,” during countless processions dejectedly commemorating the latest defeat.
Nor is it entirely Cook’s fault that, as captain, he was required to act as a spokesman on behalf of an organization in disarray and a team in freefall. With Clarke, Flower and Downton determined to see out the crisis in their fireproof bunker, Cook was horribly exposed every time he undertook his press duties. The most articulate of speakers would have struggled to convince a sceptical and, at times, incredulous cricketing public, and it’s fair to say that Cook as orator is more Claudius than Cicero.
It has not helped Cook’s cause that he was implicated in the sacking of Pietersen. The ECB ensured that the skipper’s awkward attendance at the meeting in the Danubius Hotel gave a form of apostolic approval to the excommunication. But it also meant that Cook was perceived as in part to blame for the decision, and regarded in many quarters as petty and weak. The skipper’s impressive Test record lost a great deal of its worth as his behaviour and character came under scrutiny. When the runs dried up, so did the benefit of doubt. In many ways, Cook and Pietersen are two sides of the same coin, which may explain why the two batsmen have so polarised views across the cricketing spectrum.
Those who know Alastair Cook say he is a top bloke and he is respected in the dressing room. His record as an England batsman is inalienable. When he was at the top of his curve, his prosaic, accumulative batting style was hugely effective. In the uplands of success, his value was much, much better than worthy. Cook was unfussy, phlegmatic and redoubtable – all qualities that define the stolid character much loved by elements of the English establishment.
In the end, Cook’s lack of oratorical flourish makes him no more a bad player than his good looks make him a great one. His emotional outbursts might have dismayed Newbolt and Kipling, but stoicism did not win Jardine the Ashes. The sacking of Paul Downton will have reinforced the point that cricket is a results business, and it should be recalled that both “Vitaï Lampada” and “If” are linked in perpetuity to heroic failure. There is no longer room for sentiment or arrogant, indefinable concepts of Englishness.
It remains to be seen whether the new cricketing landscape has introduced some no-nonsense Yorkshire values into Cook’s thinking. On the eve of the first Test in Antigua, he was unable to contain his inner petulance –
“I think my position should not really be a talking point as it has been over the last 15 months.”
Frankly, on the back of 15 months of on-field failure and underperformance, Cook should be focusing on fixing his faulty technique and scoring long and freely. In short, doing his job rather than taking sideswipes at commentators for doing theirs. He would do well to acknowledge Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” No one is talking about Paul Downton any more.
If Cook fails to up his game, he will be dropped. If he fills his boots this summer, other issues fall away. It is how it should be.
The irony perhaps is that after 15 months, during which the destinies of Cook and Pietersen have moved in opposite directions, they are now both required to score heavily if they want to play Test matches for England.
© Tregaskis April 2015