The Curious Case of the Cook Captaincy Kerfuffle

Crazy World Of Ally Cook 2
Feeling the heat? Or is it all cool?

It is indeed a tough task following the last two pieces by The Leg Glance. They were superbly written, cogently argued and received with the responses they deserved. So it’s a bit after the Lord Mayor’s Show, but let me try, and the subject is Alastair Cook. Isn’t that so frequently the case?

England are losing the test series 3-0, but it is a very difficult one to assess from the visitors’ standpoint (well it is in my eyes). England have missed opportunities, but if we are talking about catches in such a way, as being pivotal to outcomes in the absence of something else, we should throw away all those 2005 DVDs and just change the record on who held the Ashes that year after those key drops on Day 5 at The Oval.

You need to create chances to take them, and the team that wistfully looks back on isolated opportunities is usually one deluding itself. In referring to Adil Rashid’s dropped caught and bowled, a tough chance, as a key point of the match, we are probably less inclined to focus on Keaton Jennings being fortunate not to bag a pair on debut and we’d be saying how out of his depth he looked. On such small margins are careers forged.

Each of the batsmen in the starting XI at Mumbai has some moment of success to look back upon, and maybe it is the start of a more firm batting line-up, especially with Hameed waiting in the wings – but it’s still not the certainty many seem to indicate. There are still vacancies in the top and middle order.

The spin bowling has been game, but not as good in these conditions as their opponents but that can hardly be their fault, and it isn’t a surprise. We didn’t go to the West Indies in 1985/6 expecting to match the West Indies pace attack on friendly wickets, so why expect our spinners to match the Indian bowlers? I’ve been more disappointed with the seamers, who not only have looked mostly unthreatening, have also been talking as defeatists. We aren’t worried about them in England, but when the chips are down in Australia, and they may well be, I don’t want to hear talk of wickets nullifying them, and players being good at home.

Given the diverse signals being given off, and interpreted, by the press, the media have had to coalesce around one key issue. The agenda was set, and how it will please him that it did, by #39 and his interview with Alastair Cook prior to the tour. There he let slip that he might consider leaving the captaincy sooner or later, and that might be at the end of this tour. There was a certain wistfulness about returning to the ranks and being the senior pro, rather than the one calling the shots.

I said what I thought of that when the issue reared its head. Alastair Cook may give off an “aww shucks” demeanour, but he’s a very skilled media operator (rather than a skilled orator). There is no way that the media profile he’s had has not been achieved without some very skillful work. Grown journos have confessed their undying love for the chap. So if Alastair thinks he’s been misinterpreted, as Trevor Bayliss has mentioned today in a totally unconvincing load of old tosh, then more fool Cook. But I don’t think he was misinterpreted at all. I think he knew how that comment would come out, but as to his motives, you’ll have to ask him. This hasn’t arisen before, to my knowledge. It’s all about steel, iron and resilience under fire.

What this article did, though, was to give the journalists out there, and those sitting back here in the UK, a way in. They could start debating whether Cook should stay or go, without impugning his character or reputation. This reminds me most of the end of Atherton’s time in charge. Having won a breathless final test in the 1997 Ashes, when the media were calling for him to go (Nigel Clarke being particularly vociferous, I seem to recall), Athers was persuaded to stay on for a tour of the West Indies. We lost that series 3-1 and Atherton resigned immediately after. He’d given off the signals that he didn’t want to stay on, and was persuaded to do so. Cook is giving off those signals now, even talking about imagining a future where he is in the team, but not captain. So if he’s considering it, he knows, he had to know, that the press would speculate on it given half a chance. That would be more pronounced if we were losing the series, and the captain looked a bit frazzled around the edges in doing so. If there were a couple of odd dismissals, then even more could be read into it. Post-Bangladesh, with that series ending on a bad note, this wasn’t ideal timing.

After Rajkot the tune changed. There was a lot less about Cook’s perceived wishes, and a positive bounce in the steps after a very worthy performance and a century for the captain. The scribes, commentators and “The Verdict” crew were effusive in their praise, paying homage to the captain, and excusing his caution (which I agreed with, so you won’t be getting me on that one) as totally understandable. He had shown great resolve, some good captaincy and the universe could live in peace. Cook’s future wasn’t on the agenda.

Two test matches later, some odd dismissals, some lacklustre, even downright bad captaincy in those games, combined with a week off between tests, and the mood and direction had changed. In watching how the press approached it, one could see the great forces at play. Having a go at Cook is, for the digital world, with its plethora of opinions, On here the outside world believes we are mostly focused on “getting rid of Cook because he got KP sacked”. That’s the view we get, no matter how many times we repeat ourselves as being the wrong end of the stick. It’s a very unreasonable simplicity that prevents those reading for looking at this more deeply.

I’m past caring whether Cook carries on or not. What we have not done on this, as the media have at this juncture, is to raise a storm now – this is seen as the most vociferous of blogs, but it isn’t us who have started the fire. It hasn’t been much elsewhere I’ve seen, but it is with some of those who have sat on the fence, or even issued “Back Cook” missives in the past. In this case, believe it or not, the digital world of social media has followed, not encouraged. Has commented but not been the provocateur.

I wrote in “What’s Cooking”

So why now, people? What aren’t you telling us? Someone is clearly muttering something, because even though we have no idea how good journalism works, we know how this thing works, because we’ve seen it happen. Is Strauss talking? It appears the most likely as Bayliss is a Strauss appointment, and Cook a Hugh Morris/Paul Downton one (Morris originally, Downton post Ashes 2103-14). Is it the Venus Fly Trap, through Newman, who is laying his poisonous seeds for sins of the past? Something is afoot, and I think we all want to know what it might be. Going to tell us good ladies and gentlemen of the press? Why have Pringle and Newman turned? Now?

Is it merely a coincidence, or is it a message? Can the press seek the changes they always used to, but in a more deferential, less combative manner? To call for Cook to resign because he’s a poor captain is to invoke a wrath rarely seen in the media world, and from his loyal fans online – hell we’ve seen it often enough. But it’s not far from the truth to question his ability, because tactically he’s never been the best. He’s had to rely on the nonsensical “leads from the front”, probably because he opens, but in his past 45 test matches he has five test hundreds. There’s no doubt he is a leading figure in the dressing room, looked up to by many of his colleagues, but is that enough? Are we aiming so low as creation of a good environment? There’s the contention he’s a nice guy, and you don’t have a go at them (friends of mine at work encountered him at Chelmsford, and said he was genuinely very friendly) if they are nice, do you? That makes you mean spirited, bilious, vitriolic. Something the mere blogger gets thrown at them. So the press get to do their thing having it both ways. Looking to create the succession, but keeping their cards close to their chest if it doesn’t happen now.

Which has been perfect for them. This whole “debate” is a pretty cynical construct if you ask me. It allows key supporters like Newman, Stocks and Selfey (passim) to put forward public positions of support, but that he should pack it in if he really doesn’t feel up to it. They wouldn’t have a go at him for feeling he’s run his race, given what he has been through, and he’s been an absolute beacon of integrity. The man has “suffered enough”. There’s no debates over who might be the best captain, whether the team needs fresh ideas, a new impetus, a different direction, because these people will still be very happy if Cook remains in post. There are little digs about Joe Root, about how he might not be a leader – nothing in the league of Newman’s leak against Ian Bell – and how we might ruin his best form. As Chris said in the comments on the previous piece, why is this a given?

An attempt to put the case from outside this cosy consensus is met with the usual old crap about us being pro-KP zealots who wanted him gone the day he got shot of our hero. I could write another 10000 words on that old bollocks, but I saw it again today and it made me whistle now as it did then. I’ve been pretty laid back about this Cook crap. If he wants to go, he’ll go. If he wants to stay, Strauss would stun me if he effectively dismissed him. I’ve always felt getting to the 2017-18 Ashes was a huge stretch, given Cook would need to be in the job for over 5 years, and the natural cycle (unless your Graeme Smith) is 4 years or so, but I can perfectly understand why Cook might want another go at the Ashes down under to lance a boil if possible. But it’s not his decision, and that is the point – or at least it shouldn’t be his decision. This is England, not Cook’s England. If our board, our Comma, think Cook is at the end of the race, then they should tell him. If he chooses to make a dignified exit, then so be it. It should not be if Cook wants to stay, that’s it. But I suspect that is precisely how it will be.

The press can speculate. It’s fun to speculate. But when that speculation has to be on message, then we smell a rat. We can come up with all sorts of theories – mine is Cook has been very affected by missing the immediate aftermath of the birth of his latest child and has appeared slightly off key all winter – but at the end of the day if, as I sort of expect, he goes at the end of this tour (that’s what all the desperate signals say) I’ll actually be quite disappointed. Yes, you read that right. I’d be disappointed because if he felt like this at the start, and all impressions were that he was, he should have sought a rest. Some proper time off. I don’t think anyone, really, could have begrudged him that. He should not have skippered with this in his head. Because if he quits after this next test, it was in his head all along. Just like Atherton back in 1997-8.

We can evaluate the test series at the end, but I find our media machinations much more fascinating. They have had to twist and contort their way through this issue, keeping loyal to the Cosa Cooky, while intimating they aren’t out of touch with the messages being dripped to them. It is a high wire act convincing no-one. This is about the softest press a captain at the end of his tether has ever got. It’s about invoking KP tweets to feed the hostility some more. It’s about complaining that we never had a chance, and then saying it is perfectly understandable that the captain might think about his future. They may not be all either/or issues, but they are a clear message. Cook is still their main man, will always be their main man, and nothing is going to sway them from it. By trying to give him a dignified way out is out of character, and isn’t fooling many of us. It’s the same in many ways as 2014. Cook is the ECB’s man, and that means a lot. Get in line, follow the crowd, make the pro-points, and be a good little journo. Because Cook is nice.

An interesting post-script to Cook leaving the captaincy is how much rope he will be given to stay in the team. Cook the batsman is more disposable than Cook the captain. He will be 32 in less than a fortnight. A bad run at the top of the order is, with 32 year olds, accompanied by accusations of not being fit, being worn out, having your eyes going, not wanting it any more, or “time to make way for young players”. Watching our media when that happens is going to be truly fascinating. I suspect many want him to play until he’s 36 / 37 when he can get to Sachin’s run totals. There will be more rope than others, I’ll bet. Ricky Ponting didn’t have to make too many iffy scores before he got the tap on the shoulder.

I’m never surprised by this lot. Not really. It wouldn’t surprise me if they went into mourning the day he does resign. Especially if it is before the next Ashes, where the Redemption Tour will be in full force. Deep down they know they can’t go into it with a half-hearted leader. They know he really has to go. But they can’t force themselves to really say it. But they can still create a debate. It’s been a fascinating exercise to watch. Vic Marks reckons his time is up. Dean Wilson seemed to be saying it too. All at the end of a series where we have been well beaten, and the captain excused of it while players are blamed. It’s been a real treat. There’s more to follow, I am sure.