I feel sorry for Alastair Cook. It’s no secret that the English media, and certain fans, love to build someone up and then knock them down. We see it in other sports all the time. You’re either brilliant – a world class hero, a pin-up boy, a genius or an all time great – or you’re a waste of space, a steaming pile of donkey manure or even worse, Luis ‘the biter’ Suarez.
But what makes Cook a unique case is that his employers have built him up as much as anyone. In order to justify the decision to sack you know who after the Ashes, they’ve actively tried to enhance the cult of Alastair Cook. Indeed, they’ve stated candidly that Cook is the future, and they’ll build a team around him.
The ECB have always seemed enamoured with Cook. He speaks eloquently; he’s intelligent; he’s a nice guy; he looks the part and, as a former choirboy, he’s more than capable of singing from the same hymn sheet as his employers.
He can bat a bit too. Indeed, there’s one piece of statistical evidence that justifies Downton and company’s faith in him: at just 29 years of age, he’s already scored more test centuries than any other Englishman in history. Indeed, you can’t watch Sky for five minutes without Nick Knight speculating whether he’ll one day surpass the great Sachin Tendulkar’s total of 15,921 test runs.
Surely Cook must be great himself to justify such lofty expectations? He’s certainly billed as such. There’s no shortage of former players and pundits who fall over themselves to call Alastair an ‘all time great‘ or England’s ‘greatest ever’ batsman. What’s more, whenever Cook’s recent poor form is mentioned by the media, it almost seems obligatory to mention his 8000 test runs as if this proves beyond doubt that he’ll return to top form soon enough. Form is temporary, class is permanent etc.
However, I have long believed that Cook’s aggregate of test runs is misleading when judging his prowess with the bat. Aggregates demonstrate longevity, not greatness. Graeme Pollock scored just 2256 test runs. Was he a quarter of the player Alastair Cook is?
Instead of focusing on the number of runs (and even the number of centuries) a batsman scores, it is better to focus on the statistic that really matters: his batting average. And if you want to judge how good a player is compared to his peers – which might then enable you to set realistic expectations – you compare his average to his contemporaries. Alastair Cook averages 46 in test cricket. Just for the record, Graeme Pollock averaged 61.
Below is a list of the top batsmen in the world today according to the ICC rankings. The figure after their name is their test batting average.
1. AB DeVilliers 52
2. Kumar Sangakkara 59
3. Shiv Chanderpaul 52
4. Hashim Amla 51
5. David Warner 47
6. Misbah Ul Haq 49
7. Cheteshwar Pujara 59
8. Michael Clarke 52
9. Ross Taylor 47
10. Virat Kohli 47
11. Angelo Matthews 48
12. Younus Khan 51
13. Steve Smith 40
14. Mahela Jayawardene 50
You have to go down as low as 22 before you find Alastair Cook’s name. Is this world ranking fair? Well, look at the averages. You’ll see that Alastair Cook, ostensibly a great batsman, has a lower batting average than all the players above bar one. In some cases, his career record is substantially worse.
The only player with a worse career average is Steve Smith, although it is quite telling that Smith, a player many fans see as a weak link in Australia’s lineup, is already ranked higher than the darling of English cricket.
Lancashire fans might be interested to know that even South Africa’s Faf Du Plessis, who had a mixed time at Old Trafford, averages 52 in test cricket. Hell, why not throw in a joker while we’re at it? Vinod Kambli (remember him) ended his career with a test average of 54. Cook’s career average isn’t that impressive by comparison.
Remember, the above is not an all-time list. It’s not even a list of batsmen from the recent past. We could, if you like, add players such as Ponting (average 52), Mike Hussey (52), Kallis (55), and Dravid (52). These were all great players. The man the ECB have entrusted to lead England into a new era is not. So why pretend otherwise?
The truth is that Alastair Cook is a very good but unremarkable test player by global standards. He’s certainly not one of the best in the world if you go by his average. He very much belongs in the second tier of world batsmen – players who are established names, but a long way short of great. The likes of Darren Bravo (44), Ian Bell (45) and Jonathan Trott (46) spring to mind. Indeed, Trott has a slightly better career test average than Cook.
In historical terms, Cook also belongs in the second bracket next to names like Andrew Jones of New Zealand (44), Simon Katich (45) and Mark Tubby Taylor (44). Obviously, Tubs was a far superior captain to Cook, which is why he kept leading Australia long after his batting form deserted him.
The point I’m making is that Cook’s current world ranking of 22nd is about right for a player who averages 46. Given there are eight major test playing nations, one might expect Cook to be the third best batsman in an average / typical test side. What’s more, he’s surprisingly vulnerable against top class fast bowling.
This is not a player to be revered. A player like Cook is one to be respected, of course, but the praise he receives is a bit over the top. One wonders whether it has more to do with stereotypically ‘English’ qualities he embodies – the fact he’s well spoken and, in the words of Giles Clarke, ‘comes from the right kind of family’. Cook has always been considered as indispensable throughout his career. But if England lost him, it would hurt the team no more than when the side lost Trott and Pietersen.
Of course, it could be argued Cook is an all time great in terms of English batting (if we ignore the broader international context). After all, England has not produced a truly world class player – someone who averages over 50 and was consistently at the top of his game for a long period of time – for decades.
However, I’m not sure this is the case either. As I’ve already mentioned, Cook averages slightly less than both Pietersen and Trott. I’m sure the latter won’t be remembered as a great player worthy of adoration. Trott was always a polarising player in many ways.
Furthermore (and forgive me if you’ve heard this argument before) recent England players have been playing in an era where runs are easier to come by. This isn’t opinion, it’s fact. Whereas 40 used to be the benchmark for a world class player, it is now 50 – thanks mainly to flatter, slower pitches, the failure of Bangladesh to improve, the Kookaburra ball, and the relative paucity of genuinely threatening bowling attacks. Cook’s career record is currently well below this benchmark.
Let’s compare Cook with some other left-handers from England’s recent past.
David Gower averaged 44 in an era when Marshall, Garner, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee were strutting their stuff. Meanwhile, he did not have tests against Bangladesh to boost his average.
Graham Thorpe averaged 46 against McGrath, Warne and Gillespie, 50 against Murali and 52 against Pakistan. He saved his best for the strongest teams (his overall career average was 45).
Alastair Cook, on the other hand, has only averaged above 27 in one Ashes series out of five against considerably weaker attacks. Most tellingly he scores most of his runs against the weaker test attacks.
Check out his Cook’s career stats. He averages considerably more against the West Indies (58), Sri Lanka (51), Bangladesh (67) and India (55) than he does against Australia (40), Pakistan (36) and South Africa (41).
Consequently, I believe it is extremely difficult to rank Cook in the pantheon of English batters. Pundits had a similarly hard time ranking Pietersen. In the end, the media consensus seemed to be that KP was a player of great innings, not a great player. So how can it be, therefore, that Cook is regarded as a great player? He averages less than Pietersen, and scored slightly less runs, against exactly the same opposition.
Furthermore, Cook isn’t a player of great innings either. What are Cook’s signature innings? KP has Headlingley, Mumbai, The Oval to fall back on. Atherton had Johannesburg. Stewart had Barbados (twice in the same match). What innings will Cook be remembered for? Cook has a fantastic ability to bat for long periods when going through a purple patch, but this is hardly a unique or special trait. Most established test batsmen can bat for long periods when they’re on top of their game.
Furthermore, the notion that Cook is some kind of run machine doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Marcus Trescothick, who opened with Strauss before Cook, scored approximately 6000 test runs in 76 tests (143 innings). Thus far Cook has scored 8000 runs in 104 tests (187 innings). Trescothick therefore scored his runs at exactly the same rate as Cook (do the math). Had Trescothick’s career not ended prematurely, he would have amassed exactly the same number of runs as Cook and broken the same records (albeit before him). Should Tresco be considered a ‘great’ player too?
The comparison with Bell is also interesting. Bell has scored almost 7000 test runs in 100 tests (174 innings) at an average of 45. This is almost identical to Cook: Bell has scored 1000 runs fewer, but has played 13 fewer innings. What’s more, Bell has batted at five and six for much of his career, so has not had the same opportunities to make big scores as his captain.
The point I’m making is that Cook is no more special than Bell and Trott, and a little less special than Pietersen. Yet the disparity in their reputations is enormous: Cook has always been portrayed as the golden boy, the ‘alpha male’ (© Derek Pringle), whereas Bell has been mocked as the Sherminator, took ages to convince pundits he could score tough runs, and is often seen as flaky: the batsman who’s easy on the eye but too easily gives his wicket away.
The contrasting characterisations are bizarre and totally removed from reality. The bottom line is that Cook can only be considered great in terms of longevity – or, to be more accurate, potential longevity. When Cook’s test record is discussed at length, discussion invariably turn to how many runs he’ll have scored at the end of his career. Rather than giving him the plaudits now, it would be far more sensible to wait until he actually scores all these runs. It certainly isn’t right to praise a batsman to the rafters simply because he started his career at an early age, has had few contenders for his position, has picked up remarkably few injuries, and England play more test matches than they used to.
What’s more, there is no guarantee that international sportsmen will play well into their thirties. One might mention Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney as players who reached their peak in their early twenties, but a more relevant comparison might be Matt Prior: the England keeper is only 32 but some hacks already believe he’s over the hill. After 104 tests maybe Cook is reaching the end too? I personally doubt this, as Cook is fit as a fiddle and has great mental resolve, but it’s possible.
The truth is that Alastair Cook is not a great player. He’s a good player but his record does not deserve the hype nor does he deserve to be saddled with the unfair expectations he’s forced to endure. In my opinion, Cook is best seen as a paradox:
He’s an opening batsman who rarely drives through mid-off or extra-cover (despite the fact he was brought up in a country where front foot play is drilled into kids at an early age). How many opening batsmen struggle to get into balanced positions at the crease and drive with a stiff front leg?
He’s also an opening batsman who plays spinners much better than quality fast bowlers. Again this is extremely odd for an opener. What’s more, Cook was groomed for the England captaincy from an early age despite showing no real aptitude for the job. Why weren’t the same hopes hoisted on Bell? It’s the cult of Cook at work again.
Basically, nothing about Alastair Cook makes sense – not least the revered tones that many pundits and ex-players use when discussing him, nor the faith the ECB has put in him. Cook should be treated like any other England cricketer because, as I have demonstrated above, he’s no better than any other England cricketer who was part of Strauss’ excellent team.
There is no doubt that he has benefitted from the extra attention he receives in the past – it’s unlikely he would have been made England captain without it – but the cult of Cook, with all the hype and unrealistic expectations, is now a burden weighing heavily on his shoulders. The best thing the ECB, fans and the media can do to help Cook is to see him for what he is. He’s no messiah. He’s a solid test player and that is all, irrespective of whether his family is upper class, middle class or working class.
Alastair cannot carry the whole team on his shoulders, and it’s unfair for anyone to ask him to do so. The hype about Cook was never justified, just as the criticism he is enduring now is not justified either. He needs to concentrate on his game right now and improve his technique. Everything else is a distraction.