The Cult of Alastair Cook

T

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, Louis 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 picture above suggests, 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. Just the other day, Marcus Trescothick referred to Cook as an all time great in an interview on Sky Sports News. 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 solid but unremarkable test player. 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.

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.

James Morgan

About the author

James Morgan

James is a freelance copywriter, writer and author. He's a founder and co-editor of The Full Toss.

22 comments

  • Yes Cook is not a great player (I’d have two Sri Lanka players ahead of him any day). But he is one of the three best players current available to play for England (with one of the three not considered for selection of course), so he has to play, and when in form can win games for England. If England don’t select him they can only look at another young and/or inexperience player which makes England even vulnerable.

    So England do need to build around him – as well as Anderson, Broad, Bell, and Prior, with a young but talented lot coming through. They will need time to develop and we can’t expect results straight away.

    There is one big however with Cook and its not his form, or the fact that he’s not a Bradman. It is the fact that his captaincy simply is not up to the necessary standard. Anyone who has been a good captain of a cricket team can see that he just doesn’t have it. It has been thrust upon him, and who would refuse the honour? But there comes a time when he and the ECB need to accept that it isn’t working and stand him down and return to being a senior player.

    I hear the argument of who else? I’m not sure that matters – England won’t go forward under his leadership so time to make a change for better or worse.

  • One of the most perceptive pieces of cricket writing. We’re in the “Emperor is wearing no clothes” territory here. Sad that we have to put up with the dumbed down media with its dumb presenters and “writers” nowadays.

    Similar misleading deification of England players is Jimmy Anderson forging towards top wicket taker. This equals best bowler in the media’s eyes.

    Trueman 307 wickets at 21.57
    Statham 252 at 24.84
    Bedser 236 at 24.89
    Willis 325 at 25.20
    Botham 383 at 28.40
    Anderson 355 at 30.36

    And you can add in Gough, Caddick and others. Then you can look at strike rates. Must throw in:
    Steyn 362 at 23.01 and some idiots claim Anderson is better.

    So, yes, let’s get real

    • The Anderson/Steyn thing was always about skill levels, particularly with a swinging ball. No-one sane ever claimed he was outright better.

  • Yes, I understand all the negativity about Cook, his duplicity around KP etc….but…this is a piece too far..imho…it’s made round to go round…thats how it works…just stand back…the ineveitable will happen…however long it takes…and yes, we will have our moment of smugness, and it will only be false….the odious Giles Clark has to be the main target….someone, somewhere, surely, must have something on him…Standford, and Srinivisavan nothwithstanding

  • Cook needs a break and hope firm returns, what are KPs stats against the top teams compared to Cook? (Not stirring as I do not know the answer)

    • That’s an interesting point. It should be mentioned, of course, that you’d expect any batsmen to score more heavily against weaker attacks – although not to the same extent as Cook imho. I don’t want to turn this into a KP debate, as I probably could have written an article on the cult of KP too (!), but I’ve answered your question below.

      Pietersen’s average per opponent: Australia 45, Bangladesh 68, India 59, Pakistan 30, South Africa 45, Sri Lanka 51, Windies 56. The key stats are better performances against the Aussies and the Saffers I reckon. I wonder why KP struggled against Pakistan so badly? Left arm spinners maybe 🙂

  • Hello, NOC of the Guardian and regular Dmitri-botherer here.
    I can tell this piece has been building up inside you for some time. I have long thought the same about Cook, but I warn you: the cult will go on. You will be accused of “vitriol” and shouted down by people who are obsessed with pure statistics, have no sense of perspective about fast bowlers in different eras, and go “la la la I can’t hear you” when you hit them with that damning Ashes stat. The number of the beast shall be 766, and the cultists do not care that the number was amassed when Johnson could barely hit the cut strip, Harris missed two Tests and every other bowler bar Siddle was a strong contender for worst Australian XI post-Packer.
    I have followed England for 33 years. Gooch was leagues ahead of Cook, regardless of average. I would take Strauss over Cook, especially the man who made five hundreds in ten Tests v SA and Aus in 2004 and 2005. I would take Trescothick over Cook, especially as the latter could only dream of playing a match-changing innings like Johannesburg 2005 or The Oval 2003. Atherton and Stewart were as valuable, and I’m pretty sure they too would average in the mid-40s without the burden of facing Donald/Pollock, Wasim/Waqar, Ambrose/Walsh and McGrath/Gillespie.
    Tendulkar comparisons are odious, laughable and borderline demented. England’s all-time batting stats are comparable with Pakistan’s, but way behind those of Australia, West Indies, India and South Africa. That’s the kind of perspective the English press lacks when discussing Cook.

  • Interesting analysis – and one I would support re. the reification of Cook – somebody must have an ‘agenda’

    However,

    “The hype about Cook was never justified, just as the criticism he is enduring now is not justified either.”

    needs explaining, what criticism is he enduring that doesn’t have a point, I’ve not heard anybody say he bites babies?

    • Criticism of Cook’s captaincy is thoroughly justified. I didn’t really address this issue otter than to say he never really asked to be captain, he was anointed in what seemed like a right of passage. The ECB had his future all lined up for him.

      In my opinion criticism of his batting is both a little over the top but also long overdue. It’s all to do with expectations. I’m not the least bit surprised he’s going through another prolonged poor patch because his technique is, and always has been, unusual (to be kind). Plenty can go wrong with it. Of course, nobody actually thought of this when the hopes of English cricket were thrust upon his shoulders. I get extremely annoyed when the media pretend this is his first prolonged dip in form. It’s happened two or three times before and will happen again.

      What gets me is how surprised people / the media are at Cook’s dip in form. The thing I find most surprising is that he’s scored 8000 test runs batting like he does. He simply wouldn’t have got away with it in previous eras. He’s already exceeded all expectations I had for him when I first saw him play for Eng U19. Of course, the commentators were already anointing him (unfairly and bizarrely) as the savour of Enhlish cricket then too. I always found it very odd.

  • ON CWOTV this morning. Paull Allott stated that instead of slating Cook, Shane Warne should perhaps offer to help him. Obviously TV “Pundits” don’t read the articles that they comment on. In the article on Thursday, Warnie quite clearly said that he would be ahappy to have a chat with Cook over a beer. Another thing, when a “guest” on CWOTV is trying to make a valid point, why does Allott butt in, usually with a weak joke or irrelevant comment. If ECB have got Sky to “dumb down” any public criticism of the current state of English cricket, they haven’t done a vry good job.

  • Scyld Berry in the Telegraph says Cook is unable to control his two senior bowlers, Andersen and Broad. Vic Marks in the Observer says he is a poor captain of spin bowlers because he is hard wired not to trust them.

    Warne, Vaughan and Hussain described Cook’s captaincy on the fourth day at Headingley as the worse they have seen since old leatherbum died. But this was just the latest nadir on his descent through the circles of Hell, which is how he must view the boundary rope these days.

    Over the last dozen tests, Cook averages 25 and he could not borrow a hundred from Wonga at the moment. Only Jimmy Andersen had a lower top score than Cook in the SL series.

    The press are grumbling like a dodgy appendix but defend sparing the scalpel on the grounds that ‘there is no alternative’ or ‘the ECB have invested too heavily in the captain.’ Giles Clarke points out that Cook comes from the right kind of family and Derek Pringle reports that beautiful women swoon at the skipper’s feet. None of these are good reasons for propping up a lame-duck captain.

    The issue was redundant when England were winning test matches, but success early in Cook’s tenure was based on his own good form with the bat and the performances of KP, Swann and Panesar. With the exit of personnel and his own form gone down the swanny, it appears that, while he is sporting a very fine skipper’s hat, he is wearing little else. Moores describing Cook as magnificent in the dressing room is like Tennyson praising the Light Brigade for their rather splendid sideburns.

    Some have blamed the performance of the players for Cook’s travails, but this like an overrun musketeer blaming his predicament on the failure of his gun to fire when, in fact, he was to blame for not keeping his powder dry. Besides, there were enough very good performances from the new players to deliver a series win.

    Cook has almost two year’s experience under his belt now. He has a record as captain that is established enough to justify peer review. But none of the experts, and none of the noisy rather hysterical Cook supporters BTL, have laid before us any plausible cricketing reasons why Cook should remain captain. The boxes labelled nous, innovation, leadership, initiative, proactive, judgment all remain unchecked. While it is fairly easy to list Cook’s failings as a captain, it is the inability of his supporters to identify and highlight any meaningful qualities as skipper in their man that represents the most telling indictment of Cook the captain.

    In words that will return to haunt Cook, ‘something should be done.’

  • Looks like Cook’s prayers have been heeded. India’s bowling looks as sharp as a grape. India look ripe for another beating simply due to their lack of blowing. I maybe wrong but the warm up match showed as much.

    My fear is, some success against this Indian attack will gloss over all the troubles till next summer in the Ashes.

  • Great article and great balanced analysis of the facts.

    I imagine ‘runs in the bank’ and being a ‘safe pair of hands’ are counting in his favour and likely to buy him more time… for all the ECB’s perceived failings and mishandling’s the selectors are bringing together a young progressive team and, who knows, in the next year a captain could yet emerge from Root / Ballance / Robson / Ali / Stokes.

    I don’t see another candidate among the other senior players and I see little long-term benefit in selecting an experience county pro based on their aptitude for captaincy.

  • In comparson to other contemporary English batsmen, I’d rate him below Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe, Pietersen, Trescothick, Vaughan and Strauss, on a level with Bell, Hussain, Butcher and Trott, and ahead of Crawley, Hick and Ramprakash and Collingwood.

    • That’s an interesting view. I wonder how Hick and Ramps might have prospered with the huge management support Cook enjoys or how Cook might have been treated by Illingworth ………

  • I don’t disagree with much in this article, only that you could have drilled down on some of the others too (I believe Jawardene doesn’t average too many outside of the sub continent)

    However Cookie will be remembered for some special innings but maybe innings not full of special shots, the first test century in Nagpur, the hundred at Durban, the career saving hundred v that special Pakistan attack at the Oval, the double hundred at Brisbane and of course the two hundreds in the Indian series victory.

  • Neil. You are right about that Durban hundred. I’d forgotten about that innings. It was probably his most impressive in an England shirt in my humble opinion. I’d disagree about the innings at the Oval though. He was all over the place in that innings, and while it did show great mental strength (Cook’s greatest attribute) I remember him playing and missing several times, edging it through the slips, and looking like he could get out any time before he reached 50 and finally starting looking more composed. It was indeed a landmark ton, just like the one that probably saved Strauss’ career in NZ.

    I just wished people would lower their expectations of Cook – both of his batting and captaincy. I see him as a good batsman doing his best, and an intelligent guy trying to work out captaincy, but just not quite getting it. I think all the criticism of Cook’s captaincy have substance, but the fiercest criticism stems from expectations that are too high. He’s a flawed captain doing his best in tricky circumstances (some might say the best option of a flawed lot) so it’s unfair to judge his leadership by the highest standards. Besides, as I’ve said in another article, I think the coaching team must take its fair share of the blame at Headingley, plus the bowlers themselves of course. Meanwhile, Broad does not look fit to me. He’s bowling like he was against SA in 2012 i.e. at three quarters pace.

    • Yeah I pretty much agree with that.
      As a captain he needs lieutenants, of which one is Broad. Who as you say doesn’t like quite right.
      I also have major concerns over Anderson’s condition and his ability to play back to back tests. We pretty much have 5 back to back tests v India. A problem that Cook really doesn’t need is managing Anderson, but this will be key to the series, he may even need resting for a test or two.

  • Broad doesn’t look all there, still got the spirit but not the legs. What’s up with him?

    Cook needs to start scoring again (and he will, no slump lasts forever) and he really needs a more developed team that will disguise his conservative-to-the-point-of-pain captaincy. There are some good things to be seen in this team and if Ben Stokes can learn some mental discipline he’ll be a great addition to the team and attack.

    Give Cook another year and things will change for the better. India don’t travel well, but Kohli will probably cause a lot of problems.

    Aussies won’t have the same attack when they come over. Unfortunately, I just can’t see Harris playing in 2015 and Johnson won’t be the same player without Harris beside him.

    The main head honcho that needs to go is Giles Clarke. If cricket was more popular, he would never be allowed to interact with the media at all.

  • Don’t really disagree with most of the article although I do think its more difficult to have a high average as an opener – usually hardest time to bat.

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