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?