Do the decent thing: day five at Headingley


One of the most fascinating aspects of yesterday’s high drama was this: Alastair Cook’s future clearly hung on the outcome, but it was an outcome over which he wielded no influence whatsoever.

Yesterday was perhaps the most important day’s cricket in Cook’s career, and yet he at no point stepped on to the field of play. Helpless, he watched from the balcony as his batsmen decided his fate.

Had England capitulated by early afternoon, Cook would have woken up this morning as an ex-England captain. But the staunchness of the rearguard – and the utter heroics of Moeen Ali – got him out of jail, even though it had nothing to do with him.

There was a kind of exquisite agony in the way England finally lost the match, and in a peculiar way it’s taken the pressure off the captain. Cook’s woes are now Monday’s boring old news compared with yesterday’s riveting narrative: the unexpected feats of stoicism, the heart-breaking denouement, the emergence of a new folk-hero.

But as the old saying goes, look it up in the paper. However valiant the last day performance, England ended up losing a match and series they should have won easily. And it wasn’t even close: the margin of defeat was 100 runs, despite England at one stage in their first innings being 311-3 and leading by 57.

I said a couple of days ago that we shouldn’t read too much either way into the result of this match, because “the side comprises so many rookies – and such a number of known unknowns – that defeat should not be seen as the end of the world; stutters and stumbles are inevitable”. But I’m going to slightly backtrack on that, for two reasons.

Firstly, the rookies weren’t the problem – in fact, all four new or newish batsmen scored centuries in the series; Plunkett took nine wickets; and although Chris Jordan went wicketless in Leeds, he contributed a decent amount overall.

Secondly, the cause of Sunday’s debacle wasn’t the fragility of a developing young side. Rather, it was the product of catastrophically gormless captaincy, an unsurprisingly inept coach, and the stubbornness of a jaded bowling old guard.

After the match yesterday, Cook said that Moeen’s epic “can only bode well for the future”. In one sense that was right, but in another self indulgent. What boded well for the future in watching other batsmen trying but failing to get the team out of the hole he’d dug for them? What solace did he take from the spectacle of other players batting – in effect – to save his skin?

Even after such a “difficult” winter, did anyone really expect England not to win this series, never mind lose it? To say so is no disrespect to Sri Lanka – they played extremely well in these two matches, but their overall test record abroad is poor, and that only underlines the abyss into which Cook has led his team. Yesterday he became only the fourth captain to lose a home series to Sri Lanka, the first from a nation other than Zimbabwe or New Zealand, and the first when Muralitharan was not playing.

Cook also became the first ever England captain to lose the early season mini-series, since they began in 2000, and the first to go eight test matches without a win since the mid-1990s. He also lost the ODI series to Sri Lanka, and overall, since last summer’s Durham test, his record is played eighteen, won three, and lost thirteen. He is turning defeat into an art-form. He is leading the side across new frontiers of loserdom.

This was supposed to be a new era. The changes made after Australia were meant to “rebuild not only the team but also the team ethic and philosophy”. Amazingly, given the reboot involved promoting the old coach, rehiring a useless former coach, making an irrelevant sacking, and wrapping the failed captain in cotton wool, it hasn’t yet worked terribly well. Who’d have thought it!

Advocates of Cook say he needs more time to grow into the role. How long, exactly – ten years? He’s now captained England in twenty three tests – the same number as Mike Gatting, and more than either Len Hutton or Douglas Jardine. Cook – who’s also played 104 tests – is now an old hand, but he’s getting worse, not better.

Cook’s response yesterday was to say “I’m the right man for the job”. If so, then who exactly is the wrong man? One of the most brainless and lazy arguments in support of his retention is that there is no realistic alternative. Why not? Name me one player who would do worse than him.

But Cook is not budging. “I’ve never quit on anything. I’m incredibly proud to be England captain. It’s a huge honour and I’m in it for the long haul”.

There are three analyses of his position. One is that his resolve and courage are to be applauded. Another is that he is being stubborn and selfish – refusing to quit despite the overwhelming arguments for him to do so. And the third is that Paul Downton talked him out of resignation. Bearing in mind that the Dark Lord staked all his chips on Cook, this is highly plausible.

The ECB management have backed themselves into a corner. They fired Pietersen to save Cook, and pledged to rebuild the team around him, despite his obvious failings and lack of runs. But as most of us warned them in February, this was a disastrously stupid and self-serving strategy, as has been proved within the space of only a few weeks.

But the ECB can’t now ditch Cook, because it would make them look ridiculous – and they care far more about their own personal reputations than anything else. What’s more, his most obvious replacement – the other senior and experienced available batsman – is Pietersen, whom they fired to help Cook in the first place. The management are trapped in a ridiculous situation which is entirely of their own making. As the American visitor said to Basil Fawlty, in the Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers, “can’t you see what a crummy dump this is?”

Hang on a moment. How dare I criticise Cook when Graeme Swann has told me not to? As he said on Test Match Special yesterday?

“The criticism of Cook is out of order – it’s a few people with an agenda against him. People need to support him rather than swinging axes”.

This was one of the very few occasions on which Swann did not refer on-air to the England captain (who is one of his best friends) as “Cookie”. The former off-spinner appears to think his primary role in the commentary box is to act as his mate’s cheerleader, which is symptomatic of how former players in the media close ranks around one of their own when attacked by ignorant and irrelevant people outside cricket (ie, their readers and audience).

But regardless, who is Swann to tell England fans what to do? Captains must earn support. Support is not a divine right: it has to be renewed, and can be forfeited. Whatever’s happened on-field, Cook has in recent months dirtied his hands in shabby dealings off the field – and that has lost him a huge amount of trust and respect.

Swann is also plain wrong to dismiss Cook’s detractors as a “few people” with an agenda. For a start, Cook’s critics run into the thousands, and form the majority in all online forums. They include two of Swann’s TMS summarising colleagues, Geoffrey Boycott and Michael Vaughan, who have both criticised Cook heavily of late. Boycott described Cook’s form as a “recipe for resignation”. In today’s Telegraph, Vaughan says that ninety per cent of the criticism is correct.

As for an agenda – well, I have an agenda, to an extent, because I can never forgive Cook for his role in KP-gate. But that’s not the point. Irrespective of February’s events, Cook’s own batting form has disintegrated, and he has overseen a sequence of results for which any other skipper would have been fired.

Swann is not the only media figure to scold the public – in patrician and patronising terms – for being unpleasant to Cook, as if the one issue which has dogged his career has been not getting enough praise. Predictably, figures in the press are blaming Twitter and condemning “personal abuse”.

The press’s attitudes betray not only their insularity but their laziness. If they actually bothered to read blog comments, or the discussion boards on the major newspaper boards – not just a few barbs on Twitter – they’d realise than huge numbers of passionate England supporters are criticising Cook in very sober, judicious, reasoned and insightful ways – and criticising his captaincy, not him as a person.

And why does Cook deserve special treatment from “personal” attacks? No one seemed to care when Pietersen was called every name under the sun. No one even intervened when, in the past, Bell was ridiculed and humiliated from all sides. Alastair Cook is nearly thirty, a husband and a father, and the captain of the England cricket team, and yet his supporters view him as kind of cross between Mother Theresa and a fragile vase. They suggest he’s too delicate to withstand nasty comments while simultaneously dismissing talk of him being soft or weak as nonsense.

The bottom line is this. Yesterday Cook’s bacon was saved by another man’s runs. His authority is bankrupt. He can barely score a run. He represents a tawdry past, not an exciting future. And now his obstinacy threatens to undermine any prospect of genuine progress. There is only one honourable course of action. Will someone please hand that man a bottle of Scotch and the revolver?


  • The worst part of yesterday was not losing with 2 balls left, but Moores waffling on, making excuses for Cook, and quite openly saying he would be captain for the India series.

    I wanted Jason Gillespie to be head hunted for the England coaching job because he is in the same mould as Darren Lehmann – and look what he did with the Aussies in 6 months.

  • I’d suggest those with an ‘agenda’ are the group of commentators describing the England captain as ‘Weak’ ‘Gutless’ ‘Weasel’ et al not Boycott and Vaughan who as far as I can see are offering n honest appraisal and construct analysis, there is a difference, I do hope TFT are part of the latter not the former.

    Cook needs runs, end of, he did what was required for Essex in the early season but couldn’t replicate it against Sri Lanka. His record suggests he knows how to make them, although Ian Bell aside, international centuries were hard to come by for England batsmen in 2013, including your favourite England no. 4.

    I’d also add being pro England doesn’t mean you consider Cook to be Mother Theresa nor anti Kevin Pietersen. I like watching cricket and enjoy reading as you say “sober, judicious, reasoned and insightful” commentary.

    The new batch of English players, Robson, Ballance, Root, Jordan and even Plunkett all gave us cause for optimism so lets not write them off just yet.

    • Can you extrapolate for me how Cook getting runs will enable him to become a better captain – when he is not a good captain, doesn’t have man-management skills and is an appalling communicator

      • His captaining is defensive and unimaginative which is clear to see for anyone watching the game. His runs, which have proved in the past, are more likely to contribute to a test win than sticking in an extra slip at the right time.

        I’d be keen to know on what basis you deem his man management and communicating skills to be ‘appalling’? I suspect they are an improvement on the captaincy of both AF and KP but Cooks probably carried on in the mould of Strauss and that should be no surprise.

        I see the points from both sides, I’m just not sure why people need to be so militant and obdurate in their opinions.

        • In a series where England failed to win the first match by not taking the final SL wicket and failed to save the second match on the penultimate ball, I think it is reasonable to propose that, with the margins so small, Cook’s captaincy was instrumental in England losing the series.

          No one gives a tinker’s cuss about his leadership or on-field captaincy skills if his ability to score big and win test matches make the subject redundant.

          However, he is now suffering under two concurrent burdens: he is in one of the worst run droughts of his career; and the ECB have made him a very public totem for their brave new regime. If anyone wonders why his captaincy is suddenly under acute scrutiny – res ipsa loquitur!

  • I agree Cook has to step down as skipper. Problem is there is no replacement for him within the current team (the main reason he kept his job after the Ashes debacle).

    As a bit of a left field alternative (and I’m obviously biased in this) maybe Paul Collingwood could be persuaded to take over as an interim captain? He’s not that long retired from internationals, is still close to the England set up and has worked wonders at Durham with limited resources. At the very least, he’d make us difficult to beat and bring some fight back to the team. Root could open against India to allow Colly to slot in at 5 or 6.

  • Agree with everything. Spot on. The current ECB regime have gone out on a limb to back Cook. I can’t recall any other decision by England cricket’s administrative hierarchy which has so unwisely put all its eggs in one basket. They have painted themselves into a corner, and I wouldn’t be surprised if massive efforts had been made to prevent Cook from resigning after the Ashes, and perhaps even now. Especially after the KP sacking farce, he must feel he has to see it through until he’s sacked, which may be never.

    The worst thing about all this for me is that it has actually lessened my enjoyment in watching England play test cricket, and that is unforgiveable.

  • Very strange all this. As a battle scareed England fan from the 90s I should have had enough of England losing but yesterday overall I think I was hoping for that last wicket to fall. Not something I am pleased about but I feel the fans have been so insultingly treated by the ECB, one of whom did the Stanford deal let’s not forget, that what option do we have but to remove our support? Oh and to the media allies of the ECB, stop telling us what to think. Thankfully Vaughan and Boycott are calling it right.

    • It could be argued that Cook single handedly lost us the series because of his late declaration in the first test, his breathtakingly naive tactics at Leeds, plus the fact he was the only batsman in the top 7 not to make a single significant score (at least 50) in the series. It’s quite a CV.

      • Maxie, one of your best pieces. And they are all extremely good.

        James, I think only Andersen had a lower top score than Cook.

        Andersen did contribute in other ways, though.

        • yes, he cried a lot whilst Cook showed grim determination and delusion in the face of battle :0)

    • You’re not the only one – there were plenty of others thinking the same. Apparently Swann was outraged on TMS by talk of people opposing England. Perhaps if the likes of him sat on our side of the fence for a little while, he might just get a sense of why people feel betrayed and disenfranchised.

  • If cook wasn’t Captain he would have been sent back to his county to prove himself in years gone by. The problem we have now is that there is such a disconnect between county and international level that he has nowhere to go. The ECB haven’t helped here. They have made some very poor decisions and offered little in the way of real guidance and management. It looks very much like we are headed back towards a period of mediocrity which I sincerely doubt the current regime is capable of steering us out of. For whatever reason Anderson is not the bowler he was from ’09 to ’11. Broad is either amazing or missing and we don’t have a spinner. Jordan looks okay. Plunkett looks better since he went to Yorkshire but surely Stokes must come back in?
    The reason I focus on those players is that it’s taking 20 wickets that wins you a test match. If you can’t bowl a side out twice you can’t win a test and we are not capable of doing it as we currently stand. Never mind coaches and captains, players have to perform and ours just haven’t. We got away with our last ashes win by a combination of luck and poor Australian play. I don’t see us winning another ashes unless massive strides are made. I don’t know what the answer is, I do know that Peter Moores doesn’t know what the answer is either, neither does Cook. Until they do, welcome back to the nineties.

  • Firstly, just want to say, what a great article. Now if only your article found it’s way on the Guardian!

    As an England fan it pains me but the best way forward may be short term pain. It may require India to pummel England in the first few tests to give some people at the ECB the push required to make some positive changes. I fear they do not have the bowlers to beat England.

    I would also say, it really, really makes my blood boil when commentators (ECB mouth pieces – if we are being honest) go on about how true England fans would be at the grounds supporting England. I am a ‘true’ England fan. But I choose not to go to watch the matches as a way of showing my feelings towards the ECB. I feel their constant patronizing of anyone ‘outside of cricket’. It’s as if it’s a headmaster pupil relationship, this should not be the way!

    My lack of presence is me saying ECB needs to change, it is also the only way I can voice my opinion and be noticed by those in power.

    • Hear hear! The arrogance of ECB’s outside cricket rhetoric and the media telling us what ”real” fans should do makes my blood boil.

      ECB are not getting any of my money this year either…looks like a lot of people are like minded if the attendances at Headingley are anything to go by.

    • Thanks, Timmy, and thanks too for your contribution. I know exactly where you’re coming from – I think that yesterday many people privately hoped that an abrupt defeat would at least put us out of our misery, so we could make a fresh start.

      The only thing which disaffected supporters can do is vote with their feet. But I imagine that even non-attendance won’t get the point across – the powers that be will just blame it, like everything else, on people with an agenda.

      It’s very similar to MPs and expense – they just don’t get it.

  • I’ll be brief as I have to go out.

    I said before Day 5 on my own rambling blog that the single moment the ECB should live to regret is the day they mentioned the term “outside cricket” for all those outside their decision-making cabal. If Agnew and others want to see hostile intent, look at that. “Oh, we should all know that’s about Piers Morgan”, they say, but it really wasn’t and we know it. I called it the ECB’s Gerald Ratner moment (look it up if you aren’t old enough to remember!). That schism is going to take a long time to bridge. I’m in no mood for a rapprochement any time soon. Even if I love Moeen Ali’s temperament, Robson’s application and the calm impressiveness of Gary Ballance.

    Fantastic piece, Maxie. Bang on the money.

    • Thanks – and at the risk of this becoming a mutual love-in (maybe we should go for a cold shower), ‘Ratner moment’ is an absolutely perfect way to describe that those words represented, their effect, and the arrogance and disconnect they revealed.

  • Many thanks to everyone for your very interesting comments – and kind words.

    Here are a few other things which have caught my eye since I wrote the piece.

    Boycott’s piece in today’s Telegraph is required reading:

    And two noteworthy comments I’ve seen on the boards:


    “Alastair Cook has been magnificent today” (Peter Moores).

    Was that Alastair with the beard on perhaps? I am mystified about what Cook had to do with the batting from No 7. downwards today. Was he remote controlling their shots from the pavilion? I am dying to know the secret.


    Peter Moores has now lost more series at home than Fletcher and Flower put together.

    • Good stuff Maxie. Agree with much of what you’ve written.

      The fact that Aggers and Swanny are alluding to people having an agenda, that Ali Cook is the subject of some sort of witch hunt and real fans should back him is arrogant bull!

      There is nothing personal & he would still be in my team but his captaincy is simply not good enough. Indeed Monday’s efforts were the worst I’ve seen on an international cricket field. How the press and their followers can defend his ”determined” captaincy when he is actually costing England games is beyond me. At least Geoffrey tells it like it is.

      Moore’s interview at the end of the game wound me up no end. Pure meaningless guff and a stark contrast to the genuine disappointment of Jimmy.

      The ECBs actions since the Ashes have been nothing short of despicable and I can’t see it getting any better with Clarke and Downton continuing in post.

      Oh to have proper cricket people in charge of England cricket…

    • Boycott: Lesson in how to lose Test

      Best compliment one can say about Cook’s captaincy.

  • Deeply important point there – and for me the heart of the troubles, even now, isn’t really Cook. England were bowling to a plan. That is partly Cook’s fault for not adjusting. But it’s not exactly rocket science to know that you should be pitching up at Headingley unless you’re as fast or faster than Plunkett.

    So it seems to me Moores and Saker deserve a lot more examination for this loss than they are getting…

    • Have a read of yesterday’s piece. The three stooges. Cook doesn’t make many decisions. The coaches spoon feed everything.

    • It’s rather curious that Saker survived the cull. Moores has certainly failed to dispel the impression he tries to run cricket matches from a spreadsheet.

      • To paraphrase am old joke, every time I think we have hit rock bottom, some-one throws Cook a shovel.

        I was surprized that there wasn’t more talk about Saker’s job after the Australian tour. He must have been part of the “lets take tall fast bowler’s to Australia and then not use them” fiasco, has failed with Finn and his 2 main bowlers continually bowl too short. When 2 England fast bowlers with over 500 test wickets between them get out-bowled at Headingley by a couple of Sri-Lankan medium pacers, we have a problem. (and I mean no disrespect to Sri Lanka, they were brilliant)

  • My dislike and contempt for the ECB and my sense of rage and anger is difficult to put into words. I am simply fed up to the back teeth with being regarded as an outsider, a troll, a KP acolyte and spoken of as lower than the dust beneath the chariot wheels by the Press as well. Supine and weak and in the pocket of the ECb and toeing their line, they are beneath contempt and Agnew and his ilk wonder why we are angry. They have made me watch cricket and will England to lose and for that I will never ever forgive them.

  • Some great stuff here as ever. As many of the posts above point out as much as the last test shone a stark light on Cook’s inability to adapt to the match situation, we mustn’t forget how inauspicious a start our new old coach has gotten off to

    The weeks switch hit is worth listening to for Mark Butcher’s sheer exasperation at Cook’s captaincy alone. I like Mark Butcher

    • Moores might say – it’s early days. But of course it’s not, because he’s already done the job once before. When Downton decided the best course of action was to hire a coach who’d already been fired once for general uselessless, he was obviously taking a massive hostage to fortune.

  • The period in which we bowled at Mathews like he was Don Bradman was agonising – the sort of stuff that will kill off test cricket. It’s Cook’s fault and he’s finished. His post-match interview on Sky was dreadful – publicly criticising his bowlers but taking no responsibility for throwing away a winning position with his own crass captaincy. However, maybe it’s not a bad thing that he has wriggled off the hook for now. If we do badly against India there will be no way out for the ECB and even Cook’s apologists will have to concede he needs to go. This would put his successor in a much stronger place – and he needs to be, as no one yet has a clue who he is.
    I think it’s harsh to put too much of the blame on Moores – he has only recently taken up his post after a substantial gap and to sack him now would be the behaviour of a Premier League football club. I know your honeymoon is shorter in a second marriage but we can’t start blaming him immediately.

  • Odd how none of the media seemed to mind the endless scapegoating of KP, but Cook is a no-go area.


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