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.