Sometimes clever people make things far more complicated than they need to be. Here’s what Paul Downton, a highly intelligent and articulate man, should have said about Alastair Cook and the England cricket team on Monday:
“I can understand the fans’ concerns. It’s not going to plan at the moment. Alastair hasn’t scored runs for an awful long time, the team is an awful slump, and we’re not improving enough … if at all”
“We’ll be having a frank discussion about what we can do, at this late stage, to give us a better chance at the World Cup – but giving the captaincy to someone else, and removing Alastair from the team, isn’t automatically going to make us world beaters”.
“All options are on the table, and of course we’ll discuss them thoroughly, but there is still a case for keeping Alastair. Our vice captain, Eoin Morgan is also going through a bad patch, it’s risky to burden Joe Root with the captaincy at this stage of his career, and Stuart Broad is under an injury cloud”.
“Alex Hales, the alternative opener, is also in poor form. Alastair isn’t the only one struggling for runs, and before we make a decision as dramatic as dropping the captain at the eleventh hour we need to be confident that there’s a competent replacement lined up”.
“I must repeat that we understand the fans’ frustrations. We’re fans ourselves, and we desperately want England to win. But putting all the focus on one individual isn’t helping. Results are more likely to improve in the short term if everyone gets behind the captain rather than criticising him.”
“Unfortunately there is no proven captain like Brearley or prolific opener like Gooch waiting in the wings, so we have to make the best of what we’ve got. And in the opinion of those closest to the dressing room – the people in the best position to judge – Alastair is still the best leader available”.
“I’d also like to say that we stick by our decision to sack Kevin Pietersen. I know a lot of fans love Kevin, and we should have handled things more openly in hindsight, but the problem is there was no smoking gun: there was no single thing that Kevin did or said that sealed his fate … and because of that it was always going to be difficult to explain our decision clearly”.
“I think the best way of explaining it is this: when times are good and the team is winning, Kevin is a good teammate. However, when things are going wrong – and after the Ashes we suspected there would be plenty more tough times as we bedded in new players – then Kevin becomes something of a vocal dissident.”
“Kevin has always been a very strong and opinionated character, and he has very firm ideas about the way things should be done. Sometimes this can boil over into disaffection and petulance, and we didn’t want this kind of character undermining the captain and new coach”.
“In years gone by, Kevin was always surrounded by other vocal senior players: Vaughan, Swann, Collingwood and Flintoff for example. These were all strong personalities and they all acted as a kind of bulwark. In the post-Ashes dressing room, when these strong characters were replaced my impressionable youngsters feeling their way, we didn’t think a personality as strong as Kevin’s could be contained.”
“Basically, we think keeping Kevin would have been a recipe for disaster. If results had gone against us, we could not trust Kevin to support the captain and coaches 100% without shooting his mouth off and being disruptive.”
“I understand the fans’ frustration in all this, as Kevin was a brilliant player and really enjoyable to watch, but we just felt that (considering this diminishing form and age) that he wouldn’t be worth the hassle anymore.”
Had Downton given a clear, honest, interview like this, I might have had some sympathy for him. He might have even convinced fans like me (supporters who are ambivalent about both Cook and Pietersen) that the ECB are making decisions based on logic rather than prejudice.
Unfortunately however, we never get straight, forthright interviews from the suits at Lord’s. We get half-truths, innuendo, shameless spin, blustering pomposity and irritating evasions.
When talking about England’s series defeat to Sri Lanka, Downton enthused about how competitive Cook’s team had been: “We pushed Sri Lanka hard and it’s taken world class innings from Sangakkara to beat us”.
Really? We got hammered 2-5 and the only two games we won were a shortened match (which levels out the teams) and a match in which the weather saved us from having to bat under lights.
When discussing the so-called positives from the tour, Downton suggested our batsmen had improved markedly against slow bowling: “They way we’ve played spin has been revelationary”.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Everyone knows that (a) England are still awful at playing spin, and (b) there’s no such word as ‘revelationary’.
Then we came to the media’s favourite fallacy: apparently “the young players are thriving” under Cook and Moores’ stewardship.
Again this is codswallop. The truth is that some of the young players are thriving (Ballance, Moeen, Buttler, Woakes) but others clearly are not – just like any other England team environment in the recent past.
To pretend that Moores and Cook have created a magical environment in which young players are miraculously blossoming like flowers in an arid unforgiving land is a fairytale. If you think Stokes, Hales, Finn, Robson and Jordan have improved then I politely suggest you think again.
It was exactly a year ago that Ben Stokes scored 120 at Perth. He was the jewel in England’s crown: a world-class all-rounder in the making. Since then he’s gone backwards faster than a malfunctioning Segway.
Hales has also been extremely disappointing. Not long ago, Hales was the world’s best T20 player and England’s David Warner in waiting. Fat chance. Cook (who doesn’t play T20s remember) and Moores have mucked him around and transformed the strutting Outlaw into a stuttering outsider.
I won’t talk too much about Finn as it’s all so sad: he still hasn’t found the two yards of pace he lost eighteen months ago. His action looks mechanical and unnatural. One wonders what the coaches are doing.
And then there’s Jordan, who is rapidly becoming the new Chris Lewis. Did you know he has bowled more than twice as many ODI wides (70) than any other bowler in international cricket this year. Morne Morkel is second with 29. Talent is no good unless it produces consistently.
I know I’m sounding like Victor Meldrew on a bad day now, but even some of the success stories come with caveats. Despite being absolutely brilliant this summer, Ballance isn’t even in England’s ODI squad. I’d like to know why?
Meanwhile, Moeen’s bowling has been more consistent than his batting – and this was thanks to advice from Ian Bell rather than Cook (who initially didn’t trust him to bowl more than the single obligatory over before lunch). And is Buttler really fulfilling his potential? Since his amazing century at Lord’s against Sri Lanka, he’s been relatively quiet in ODIs despite his outrageous talent.
And then, inevitably, we come to the Pietersen debacle. I’ll take a deep breath. Surely Downton had something significant to say? It was, after all, his first appearance since KP’s book.
“We’ve explained the reasons for Kevin’s sacking to fans as much as one ever can”. That’s all he said.
If Downton has explained the Pietersen decision as much as he can, then he must be either painfully shy or the world’s most unlikely mute.
As we all know, all Downton has said is stuff about KP being disengaged, made somewhat oblique references to team ‘culture’, and leaked a dodgy dossier that made the ECB look petty. You really think that’s enough, Paul?
As I’ve said plenty of times on this blog, I was not a massive KP fan. I disliked his showboating (when it cost him his wicket) and I’m someone who gravitates towards understated characters like Atherton more than flamboyant guys like Botham.
However, due to the lack of clarity from the ECB, and the testimony from the likes of Swann (initially), Stokes, Root, Bairstow, Morgan, Root, Carberry, Monty and Tremlett (who have supported Pietersen and praised his approach in Australia) I simply do not believe Downton’s line. Maybe if he had explained himself more clearly …
Finally we come to the burning issue: the future of Alastair Cook. Downton insists the ECB’s darling is the man to captain England because his track record suggests he’ll score runs again one day.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but these runs were all in the past. Yet Downton doesn’t want to talk about Pietersen because … it’s all in the past. The mind boggles.
What’s more, Cook hasn’t scored a century for England in any form of the game for 59 innings. This can’t be swept under the carpet. As far as I’m aware, no other player in the history of cricket has endured such a lean run without being dropped.
Mark Taylor, the former Australia captain, resigned after just 13 innings without a ton. The innings immediately before that run was 334* against Pakistan. And let’s nor forget that Tubby was an excellent captain. Cook is not.
Taylor resigned in part because his poor form was becoming a distraction. Cook doesn’t seem to care how much his presence is becoming a distraction – or how much it forces Hales and Taylor to bat out of position, or in Bopara’s case forced out of the side altogether.
As for why this run of abysmal form is tolerated, Downton claimed: “It would take more risk to change” captains now. If the risk is England losing matches Paul, then we’re already there. How could things get any worse?
Downton’s position was made even more absurd by his claim that “there are a lot of potential leaders in the current side” because Root and Taylor have captained the Lions. And there was me thinking that Cook was captain because there was no alternative.
Rather than pretending that the England side is full of leaders, and Cook is the ‘natural leader’ of this burgeoning crop of field generals – as if this elevates him to super-leader status, and thus reinforces the wisdom of retaining him – why not just be honest?
The bottom line is that nobody buys this nonsense. We’ve all read ex-players in the media saying that Cook is quiet and unassuming, and that Prior used to do his team-talks, so why pretend that Cook is the alpha male he so clearly isn’t.
And why use phrases like “the dressing room is finally his” when he’s been in the job for three years and the likes of Pietersen and Swann disappeared eleven months ago?
My advice to Paul Downton is therefore this: we are not stupid. We can see through your disingenuous platitudes. Just be honest with the fans. Don’t pretend that things are rosier than they are – and stop pretending that Alastair Cook is the Messiah and Kevin Pietersen is Beelzebub.
So next time you’re tempted to call Peter Moores “the outstanding coach of his generation” pause for thought. Stop trying to make your decisions look better than they really are. If Moores is so good, how come he’s never won a single limited overs trophy in county cricket?
What I’m trying to say is that England cricket fans are smart cookies. We aren’t wet-behind-the-ears interns on our first day in a City office. We’ve seen the likes of you before – and we’ll still be here long after you’ve crawled back to the business world.
You had a chance to make meaningful changes after the Ashes whitewash and you blew it: you promoted a coach whose methods were stale, placed your faith in a declining batsmen with no discernible captaincy skills, reappointed a coach who had already failed in the job, and miscalculated by sacking the team’s most entertaining batsman (at a time when attendances were falling) without explaining yourself properly.
All things considered, you’ve made a pretty dreadful start Mr Downton. And interviews like the one you gave on Monday aren’t helping.