I started writing this on a cloud-dappled morning, sat at a boathouse in view of a crystalline river, with a cappuccino at my elbow and a sense of freedom in my heart.
I say this not to embark on a sequel to Brideshead Revisited – I’ll leave that to the imaginations of the new government – but rather to remind myself that England’s premature capitulations can have their upside in releasing one from a sofa-bound vigil to more salubrious and less angst-ridden surrounds.
Cricket is a cruel master, and this unexpected day off has all the illicit thrill of cutting class or shirking off work. So it was difficult, in the moment, to feel aggrieved at Cook, or Moores, or anyone at the ECB. Just think of the many such fine days off we may enjoy this coming summer, fully refunded to boot. How’s that for taking positives?
The initial remit for this piece was a defence, indeed, a rear-guard action, of our beleaguered captain Alastair Cook. Card carrying member of Team Cooky that I am, I volunteered. Volunteered, and have been struggling ever since.
Drawing inspiration from that most stubborn of characters, however, I have refused to concede. What can you say about Alastair Cook that hasn’t been said before? For better or worse, Alastair Cook has been lionized, analyzed, and criticized: the anointed one, the accumulator, the obduracy, the wafting outside off-stump, the reactive captaincy, the anti-KP, and an embodiment of middle England nostalgia.
Defending him, as a result, is not entirely a rational process: it comes down simply to personal preference for one Cook over another, none of which personae represent the whole sportsman or perhaps even bears any resemblance to him or his record whatsoever. So this piece has evolved into a broader sort of meditation than yet another apologia for, or invective against, England’s captain.
I like Cooky. I do. He’s a nice guy (occasional snippiness under media duress aside), he’s easy to look at, and – the only thing that should really matter – he’s an exceptional batsman.
More precisely, he’s an exceptional Test batsman: he’s got graft, he’s got temperament, he’s got that precision-engineered square cut. He can play spin, he can soak up pressure – especially abroad – and he’s scored more runs for England than pretty much anybody else and will break more records as inexorably as Jimmy Anderson.
He is yet another in a long line of athletes to substantiate the old adage: form is temporary – even when temporary starts to look a little long – but class is permanent. After the disastrous 2013/4 Ashes, Cook’s test average for the last three series, when he has been under the greatest scrutiny of his career, is a respectable 39. The facts speak for themselves. I like to think that here, at least, we’re all in agreement.
And so, on to the captaincy: is Cook the best captain around? No, obviously not. He’s not the most creative, nor the most hard-nosed, nor the most inspiring. One wonders whether he might be better off forsaking the team talk for a clarinet recital. He is, as noted above, a Nice Guy.
But we’re not talking about a Platonic ideal of captaincy, a bionic composite of Jardine and Border, Lloyd and Ponting. We’re talking strictly about this England side, and who should lead them over the next three months. ‘Is Cook the best captain for this England side?’ is the only pertinent question to be asking outside of fantasy cricket discussed by overimbibing patrons.
‘Best’ is a complicated word, of course, and I think it hides within itself two unpleasant truths: on earth there is no such thing as ‘best’ in the Platonic sense, just people trying to figure out what ‘best’ is and how to imitate it (often with disastrous or comical results), and – less philosophically – there is simply no hero narrative to be played out in the next three weeks.
Joe Root has been the name on people’s lips for a while now. But before dispatching young Galahad on the quest for the Holy Grail, we might consider the very English possibility that the narrative will instead veer towards the Pythonesque. Anybody who thinks that conferring the captaincy upon him now, eight weeks before the Ashes, isn’t likely to have a negative impact on his glorious run of form no doubt also thinks Root could bat on despite a few severed limbs.
What England needs right now is a Root comfortable in his skin, an ebullient presence on the field while, off the field, snipping his teammates’ socks, minstrelling with his eukelele, and sketching a self-portrait of a happy and secure young man. He will grow into the captain’s role just fine in a couple of years and free from the contortionist anxiety of having to save England from his own team-mates.
Cook will lead England into the Ashes simply because there is no other meaningful change to make. Not one of the other players has shown any of the initiative or tactical nous or sheer form over a consistent period to suggest that they would do a better job than Cook.
For one thing England has a team full of youth and promise – not just Root but also Ballance, Buttler, et al. In the long run this will serve England well, but it leaves only a few senior statesmen, all loyal to – and no better equipped to be captain than – Cook.
All the talk of a different team culture, new dynamics, throwing off the shackles of ‘nice and graft and toothlessness’, all of it misses this one plain fact: there is not enough time for any systemic changes to take effect for the Ashes, but there is time for those changes to turn a mere mixed bag into total disarray.
Sometimes one is tempered by fire, true, but sometimes one is simply incinerated. Let’s avoid a summer meltdown wherein hasty decisions lead to the view that all possible configurations of England cricket are inherently doomed to fail.
Instead, tweak rather than chop, and make small changes for a bigger impact a la Dave Brailsford. Assuming Root develops as we all hope, he’ll profit from a carefully managed changing of the guard, and concomitant change of philosophy.
To illustrate the problem with passing the captaincy to someone else, it’s instructive to take a little mind’s-eye tour of the outfield. England right now is run more or less by committee – hence the plague of slow-over rates.
Anderson and Broad and Cook, and occasionally Bell, have long discussions between balls and overs. I assume, parenthetically, that they are discussing the weather, or Broady’s marriage prospects, or Jimmy’s hair, since surely, surely, moving someone from long-on to third man can’t require more debate time than the recent elections. Root, Ballance and Buttler, meanwhile, chatter around the crease, I assume about Yorkshire, roses, and how to go ‘bang-bang’.
But in any case, if Cook were to be replaced, what would actually change in this picture? Nothing much. This is besides the fact that Broad and Anderson both have seniority – Broad in fact possesses some captaincy traits, and for my money, should be next in line between Cook and Root, if required – I can’t imagine Joe Root, for instance, telling England’s leading wicket taker that he cannot have the field he wants, but Broad may have some purchase. Certainly he’s good at reviewing the options.
So, sure, we can rotate the personnel, but it would be, I think, a distinction without a difference. Root, along with new management, might bring with him winds of change, but not for a while yet – until then, why Cook?
Because, in the end, Cook is far from the worst of captains, and he’s been regaining form with the bat. What is needed more than a new captain, surely, is a new coach (et voilà). One with a realistic sense of what this group of players can do right now, and how they might be stewarded towards a resurgence. One with a clear idea of how to get the best out of Cook’s captaincy style, who’d help shore up his weak spots and insist on getting the best out of his strengths.
I don’t know who this miraculous beast might be, whether Farbrace or Gillespie or Langer or some other candidate yet unknown. But the change we all need is one of spirit – it must be okay for the team to lose, so long as they go down fighting. And for that, there must be more looseness in the squad: more rotation, smarter resting of key players, better management of workloads. And, perhaps, a clearer idea that the whole set-up is doing something more than simply scrambling after wins.
The national side, in the end, is meant to be the best face of English cricket (though without the unfortunate resonance of Giles Clarke’s idealization of the captaincy in Cook): the best players in the best conditions.
English cricket is at a cross-roads at the moment: how to chase a game that has morphed beyond what the English are comfortable with or good at. The easiest answer is to change with the times, but the real question is one of degree: how much, in what format, at what cost?
Root, in that sense, represents the promise of the future, an English game that is quicker on its feet and expansive in the shoulder, but also patient, and enduring, and, at least in front of the cameras, assured, honest, yet savvy.
Cook’s job, as that of the rest of the English set-up, is to enable England to get to that future. I don’t know if he can do it, but I’m not sure he’s been given the remit or the encouragement or the vision to try.
So, let’s sound a little less like high-maintenance damsels in distress and perhaps, just perhaps, we can free up those shoulders this summer to begin the long labour of rebuilding Camelot.
The fact that an argument needs to be made to keep Cook that is essentially based on ‘There is no better option’ is a massive indictment on English cricket.
Nuff said – let him bat, don’t let him attempt to lead anymore
No it’s not. It’s just an acceptance that great captains don’t grow on trees, that there is a cycle of renewal and regeneration in all sports teams, and sometimes you just have to make the best of what you’ve got.
England are roughly where Australia were circa the 2010/11 Ashes. You stuck with a declining Ponting, who was tactically no better than Cook is, because you’d lost a ton of experience from your side, and there were no better options. You were blooding new players, with more to come. Some of them made it, some of them didn’t, but all the ones who are blossoming now (Smith, Warner, Starc, Lyon) had to be given time to grow into Test cricket. Australia had to make some mistakes, pick some duds and lose some games before this current side emerged.
What England needs right now is the foresight to identify those players of talent, pick them, and then stick with them until they emerge as test players.
Clarke was almost 30 when he was made Test captain. Sticking with Ponting enabled Clarke to take over when he was ready. We could do worse than follow the same example for the benefit of Joe Root.
‘Far from the worst of Captains’ – however wonderful an oratory this is, that one line is his eulogy… may he bat, in-form for as long as, may his captaincy be thus lost to free him, and therefore the team as a team-whole enlivens and pro-acts rather than belatedly reacts or, as has been the case, doesn’t react at all (chin-rubs/teapots/self-aggrandising yet pathetic sledging) – The case for the prosecution has presented its opening statement…
But he is the worst of captains: pretty much everybody outside the ECB and English media acknowledges as much. Regularly. As for Ponting: there’s no comparison to be made. A much better batsman and leader of men.
Reads, digests, holds breath in anticipation of the oncoming onslaught……
Nice rose tinted spectacles Ayelet, and nicely penned, to be sure.
“England has a team full of youth and promise”.
This whole youthful team angle has been repeated by the media ad nauseam – it explains both present failures and promises jam tomorrow. The trouble is that except by the conservative standards of English cricket it isn’t actually that true.
Take the last Test – which England supposedly lost because, hey, they’re a youthful team and we must expect them to have occasional blips. England’s average age was 27.8. West Indies were the younger team averaging 27.4. West Indies’ openers, for example, were a 22 year old and 21 year old debutant. In terms of Test experience the England team had a combined total of more than a hundred caps than the opposition (519 to 416).
Perhaps part of the problem is that opposition players of the same age often seem more mature than their England counterparts. Mitchell Starc is younger than Chris Jordan and Steve Smith is younger than Moeen Ali, for example. English cricket needs to take a long, hard look at this – especially as England players also seem to burn-out earlier than other countries so it isn’t leaving much of a window for a Test career!
Hmm, there is no better alternative. What a ringing endorsement.
Could have been written by Andrew Strauss himself, I imagine.
And the hopeful eulogy as to his batting form is, I fear, a triumph of hope over the actual reality of how many of his recent runs have been acquired.
I really don’t think he’s a “nice guy” either – the evidence of his behaviour points in a rather different direction, even if I discount my personal dislike of his deer-shooting free time activities.
Nicely written, though, and I agree Root should be left alone to just bat for the forseeable future.
Nice to see a different perspective to bring a little balance to proceedings, which I think have painted the situation as being worse than it is. I honestly think England could surprise a few people with their performances this summer (cue the inevitable jokes about results being even worse than expected..). Time will tell.
The acid test of a lack of objectivity is an unchanged position regardless of any given course of events that would challenge this. Happy to be challenged if Eng fail horrendously – I would hope likewise that if Cook and Eng have a good summer than credit will be given where it’s due,although I fear people’s opinions are so entrenched that this would not happen for most. We’ll see.
Roll on the summer…!
It is sad – but for all his faults, Cook remains the best option (to at least take the hammering that is coming between now and January).
And I don’t have the slightest belief Root is mature enough (never mind skilled enough) to captain now. Watch him control a forlorn Jimmy or a stopping Broad? Flower and Strauss couldn’t pull them into line during the Kp genius affair!. Will Root get a note from Strauss insisting Jammy and Broad do as he tells them? And, consider, Root doesn’t even know his best batting position where he’s told it; can’t see him being strong enough to move himself for the team’s benefit, not against opposition who had him, technically and mentally, on toast last winter.
The idea of Root tossing up against Clarke does nothing but inspire dread. Just because a player comes from Yorkshire doesn’t guarantee he’s hard captaincy material.
I think Ayelet makes a very good case. He makes his case gently but effectively and it’s always good to engage with different perspectives. I really liked the assertion that new captains need to be blooded at the right time. Vaughan, for example, had an apprenticeship with the ODI side, and became test captain when Nasser came to realise that a change was in the best interests of the side. If the rumours are correct, and Root will become ODI skipper in the coming days, then I can see this situation repeating itself.
While there is an argument that Cook is such a poor captain that we need change to compete this summer, somehow I don’t think now is the right time for Root. Maybe that means Bell/Broad doing a caretaker job, but maybe not. If one expects this to be a turbulent year for English cricket, there’s a perfectly legitimate argument that Cook should carry on – acting as a kind of sponge, soaking up the pressure and negativity until the new heir apparent can emerge at the right time ie a time when we’re not playing Aust, SA and Pak in a row.
It’s good for thought anyway, and Ayelet expresses his argument in a way that’s a lovely contrast to the more bombastic and indignant defences of Cook I’ve read recently.
James – “he” is a “she”….
Apologies! I completely forgot. Bloody men.
As a fellow scholar with links to the U.S. I did look up Ayelet’s Uni of Texas profile a while back. The Alastair is easy to look at comment should have been a reminder. Ooops. Sorry.
Hey, boys can find Alastair pretty too. Just saying, but thanks for the lovely comment!
Er, that was me, Ayelet, clearly not quite savvy enough for all the technology. Sorry!
James here. I thought it was you! Sorry about the mix up. Very embarrassing. Let’s just agree that Alastair isn’t an ugly man :-)
Deal! And nor am I…
Strauss is giving a press conference on Tuesday (no time yet).
Also, among other things I don’t think anyone much has mentioned it, England need a new bowling coach.
Strauss presser on Tuesday – and KP 35* overnight……
Newman sez it’s on Monday…oh well, I suppose even the “oracle” can be wrong from time to time eh?
I’m still in the Eoin Morgan camp myself. Even though he was in crap personal form he did have the bollox to take on Cook’s ODI side, but you could just see the frustration in him over the ballance/taylor thing…Moores, and the rest, put a big set of handcuffs on him.
I still see him as potentially a great england odi captain once freed of the shackles.
Joe Root has a hell of a lot of growing up to do!!
In some ways, I guess, I can see where Ayelet’s coming from..but..as a bloke Cook’s a narcissist, with a vastly overdeveloped sense of entitlement, and, in his own way, not quite grown up! He was naive, in the extreme, when the odious Clark and his muppet Downton were stroking his head and telling him how wonderful he was and how everything “will be built around you Alastair.
For sure, he’s the man in possession, but I dont, personally, see any outstanding replacement for him…yet!!
Quite agree re Morgan – and isn’t it odd how his form has improved away from the English setup. (Also as another female, I find him easier to look at than Cook :))
Oh… and whilst i’m here…the coach? Some time ago I wrote that you must always watch the quiet one…Paul Farbrace…he’s nicely inducted in the Gillespie school of coaching, hes had success wiith Sri Lanka…..worth a punt!!
Root should for the moment concentrate on his batting and perhaps take on the role of Vice-Captain for the next couple of years, to give him a chance to learn and think about what he wants to do when he does become captain. But Cook should go as captain and an interim one appointed. Either Bell or Anderson could do the job. In the former case I think Bell is the type of guy who has had the good sense to avoid leadership responsibilities in order to protect his career as a test batsman. Its no coincedence that he is the last of the 2005 side still playing test cricket and the way things are going I fully expect to see him still in the side in 2016 after Cook’s test career crashes this year. Some guys just have the good sense to keep their knowledge and tactical abilities to themselves, and Bell seems to be one of these types. But if England appoint a decent coach who can work with him, Bell would do a decent job as a tactical coach (I suspect Anderson would too) and give Root the time to develop. There is no need now for Bell to be hesitant about this sort of thing. He probably only has a couple of years left as a batsman anyway and to spend a couple of years as Captain helping Root and the other youngsters would be a fitting start to his post-international career.
waikatoguy – my thoughts exactly – Bell as captain for this summer, it may also aid his concentration whilst batting. Leave Root time to grow, don’t make him open either – perhaps to 4 with Bell at 5
I think this pretty much sums up the middle ground a lot of fans hold at the moment but don’t get the chance to express because the Anti-Cook brigade tend to be somewhat louder… He’s not a great captain, but he’s actually all we’ve got at the moment. All these cacophonous calls for him to be axed are done with that one ambition in mind, and often with no great thought given to who should succeed him.
The fact is that TINA is not just an excuse, but a reality – and a hugely troubling one at that given that it implies the ‘Team England’ style setup which whisks players away from their counties at 23-24 and keeps the best and brightest of them ensconced in the club bubble meaning that they get no realistic opportunities to develop any captaincy experience. When all England players these days seem to be the products of a constantly-rolling production line of identikit players, original thought must surely be regarded as a hindrance to International aspirations (I’m reminded of the story that allegedly Monty Pansesar was supposed to be bubbling over with bright ideas as to how he should be bowling and what fields to set when he arrived in the England setup, but was quickly told to shut up and mind his own business).
On a further related note (and a point at which I disagree with the article), yet another anointment of Root as the FEC. Why? What exactly has he done to deserve this assumption that he will one day captain England? Exactly how much more captaincy experience does he have which recommends him for the role? People lambast Cook for the way he just seemed to inherit the armband having been anointed on debut as a FEC, yet fail to see the irony in then proposing Root as an alternative. He is exactly what Cook was then – a young decent-looking batsman who might just be good enough to hold down his own place for a period of time while captaining so as to maintain consistency for the sponsors. This is not what should be included in the key skills section of a potential captain’s CV. Instead it should read things like ‘captained county to divisional/one day cup/any competition actually title’ – of course it never will, because what young England-bound player is ever going to get the chance to captain their county for a whole season (or preferably more) these days? We’re back to that identikit-absorbing Team England bubble again.
Great post. Agree 100%. Ditching Cook is all very well – and in isolation is probably deserved – but there is no one with captaincy experience to replace him. So de facto, there is no guarantee that any replacement will be any better or worse. And “anyone could do a better job” is no argument.
The time to replace Cook, if we were going to do it, was post-Ashes. It wasn’t done, and we can have all the discussions about that we like. We are where we are – and to toss an untried captain in before the most high-profile series against a strong Australian side would be perversity of the highest order.
I’m not sure that the paucity of captaincy alternatives is unique to English cricket though. The nature of modern cricket is such that players in all sides only play international cricket once you get to that level. The only exception is if you get dropped at some point, and thus get a chance to go back to State/County cricket and maybe pick up some captaincy experience there. I think – although I may be wrong – that Steve Smith’s NSW captaincy experience occurred in that fashion.
Picking someone of the right age (23-24) and giving them the test vice-captaincy and One Day captaincy for a couple of years as an apprenticeship may be formulaic – but given the nature of modern cricket, what are the alternatives?
I do take the point that England players seem to take longer to mature than those from other countries, and that is a worry. Whether it comes from an over-prescriptive England environment or some other reason, will be something for Andrew Strauss to get his teeth into. I hadn’t heard that Panesar story, and to be honest it doesn’t quite sit right with his reputation for “playing the same test 50 times” – but if it’s true, it’s indicative of a culture that needs to be changed. Bowlers at test level should basically be setting their own fields after all – taking the pressure off the captain, and displaying that independence of thought and awareness of the game that we all want to see. Once that happens, a team almost captains itself.
TIA. How can there not be an alternative to the worst England captain since Mike Denness?
You make your case, elegantly, in the same manner as Cook’s captaincy. As a fellow member it rings all my bells and helps me to believe that my own membership renewal is not the only one likely to be received by Team Cooky. We need our leader to put some runs on the board and lead the team to some unlikely and creditable victories, but the instinctive support that Cook has from many cricket lovers is not often articulated as appropriately as your kind and thoughtful article. Bravo!
Thank you, that’s very kind. Let’s see what the next weeks brings – it should be exciting!
If Cook suffers a bad injury (no I don’t wish it) they’ll have to find an alternative. Wonder if the possibility has occurred to the management and plans are in place.