This Is Not A Love Story

cook-goes

And it came to pass. It was going to happen sometime, and you’d think I’d be ready for it. But strangely I had not prepared. Some part of me thought that this would not happen until next year. There was no piece on the stocks. There was, surprisingly, no leak. Just shows.

It had been another one of those Monday mornings. The trains at my local station were at a standstill, alternative routes had to be found, and as I sat on the train at Mottingham station, I put on the headphones, started up the I-pod, and got out the smartphone. I would carry out my usual morning Twitter trawl, trying desperately to avoid the hyperbole relating to the comeback by the Forces of Evil in the Superbowl last night.

And there it was:

Now I know many of you will think this would have been met with a punch of the air, a scream of delight on the 9:35, a lap of honour around the carriage. Instead I sat there not quite, for a few seconds at least, able to take it in. Cook has resigned as England captain on a Monday morning at 9:30. Just about my worst time of the week. The blighter. Panic. What do I do? Who can write up a piece? Most importantly from my perspective, how will an article that will inevitably go against the grain be set out? How should it be pitched?

While I had to think how we dealt with this on the blog, I also wondered why no-one had yet flagged it up (it had been out for a good ten minutes – SimonH was slacking). Was it true? Then all the press boys ploughed in and we knew it was so.

So up went the post, the holding one, and here we are now. A few hours on, and the reaction has been, well, quite muted I think (although that may be because I’ve been cocooned in a work environment all day). It had an air of inevitability about it. Cook was a dead man walking, his captaincy so lethargic and lacking in inspiration in the latter part of the India tour in particular, that any other outcome would have been an insult to cricket supporters in this country. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of his leadership and captaincy qualities, he had trailed this intention, benign or unintentional it might have been in his interview with #39 (he’s a skilled media operator, he knew what he was doing) as a possibility, and then all the pieces in the middle of the tour seemed to indicate that the press had been tipped off. The sheer devastation of that final India innings in Chennai had to be the final exclamation point on a tumultuous, yet quintessentially English regime. A novice Indian batsman getting a triple hundred. India totting up 700+. An innings defeat due to an abject collapse on the last day. It had that end of the reign about it. Cook was told to take his time, but the media, still, I presume all being briefed accordingly were almost unanimous. Hell, The Cricketer even ran a front cover that acted as if he’d gone already.

Yet there were still stories saying that this was Cook’s decision to make, and even the possibility that taking another crack at the Aussies for a Redemption beyond Redemption – a kind of Ashes Revenge, this time it’s personal – was something Cook should have if he wanted to. Little voices saying he should stay. They almost had me fooled.

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It should never have been so. We may find out in years to come whether Cook jumped, was pushed, or whatever, but if for one minute Cook said “you know, I think I’ll have another year, thanks” any decent leadership would have said “not bloody likely”. He should have been given the opportunity to resign, and if not told to. If he’d failed to do so, he should have been dismissed. We seemed to care more about the personal feelings of one player than the overall benefit to the team. The wellbeing of a dead duck captain, rather than an all points forward Team England. Cook probably didn’t feel like that, but the press gave the impression they did. It took a heart of stone not to laugh.

Now look. Cook is now being lauded for presiding over a deterioration in performance and saying it might be down to him a little – a little sprinkling of self-regard, a touch of piety and honesty. We’ve changed a fair old bit as a cricket media if that’s a plausible, rational point to make by an English sporting captain and to get praise for it. There will be the nice captaincy reviews, smatterings of integrity and class, and lots of praise for his resilience and fortitude. All that is for today. It’s nice to be nice, isn’t it? But this blog has always been that outlier. The sort of negative voice, that never moved on that could be “easily ignored”. Except it couldn’t. We owe Cook, and the media that supported him, and the ECB that backed him, a lot. Without it, what would we have done? Talk about T20 reorganisations being implemented with all the skill and dexterity of the original Millennium Dome?

So what of his reign over the past four years? I wouldn’t want to be the curmudgeon to say it was all crap, because it wasn’t. But I wouldn’t want anyone to believe this was some golden era for English cricket either. We lost at home to Sri Lanka. We drew at home to Pakistan. We lost a test in Bangladesh. We were beaten 2-0 in UAE. We lost 4-0 in India. We drew 1-1 in West Indies. There were plenty of downtimes against teams a “potential World number 1” should be winning against.

Cook, two tests against Bangladesh apart, took over the England captaincy in the middle of a good old dust up in the wake of the tiresome and stupid Textgate. History will show that a combination of Cook and Flower brought the maverick back, and the results were instant. Of course he ended up leading a reasonably unified England team for a tremendous win in India, down to the brilliance of his batting (nearly always magnificent against spin), the wonderful bowling of Anderson, Swann and Panesar, and of course, that innings in Mumbai. England’s victory was as stunning one, but also one that could, in hindsight be seen as misleading. Cook’s immense performance with the bat put the meme out that he was a “leader from the front”. Mark Butcher, for one, frequently premised comments on Cook with “he’s not a natural captain”. Any tactical nous, such as it was, was down to masses of (his) runs on the board, a magnetic performance or two from either of his two middle order stars, and his many, varied bowling attack. Maybe unfairly, but he never got the credit for that, or the Ashes win in 2013, until much later when it became a shield to protect him from the missiles aimed in his direction, rather than giving stone cold solid examples of how his captaincy had pushed the needle to victory. After 2013 his team were viewed as mean, surly, unpopular and too process driven. The reflection of their coach, and backed, tacitly or otherwise, by the incumbent captain who post-India saw a little drop off in form that started his two year run without a test hundred.

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Yes, 2013-14 was the watershed. It changed everything. It changed English cricket, to a degree it changed cricket journalism, it certainly changed this blogger, it changed the way fans talked and debated on Twitter. It was a cataclysm for England cricket. Fans turned against each other. The media sided with those who wanted to keep the fans in the dark, putting out their talking points, and letting their personal antipathy towards Pietersen cloud their judgement. This was partially Cook’s fault, but much more the ECB and the media. Cook was hung out to dry, made to be the lightning rod. He was in poor form. He had presided over an unmitigated disaster and looked helpless when confronted with it. He looked shot. But he had to be backed, because to do otherwise would actually betray his masters at the ECB and actually opened them up further to ridicule. Imagine, because it happened, when the man appointed to deal with the issue was asked whether he’d considered the position of the losing captain who had presided over that nightmare. “Not really, no” was the answer. Job’s a good ‘un. He could, and did, withstand sheer nonsense.

They were pathetic from the moment Cook allowed Sri Lanka to milk another 40 runs from the remaining seven overs with the old ball without looking to take wickets to the bitter end with Plunkett’s comical demise.

There can be no sparing of a captain who lacked any sense of tactical acumen in the field while his opposite number scored his second consecutive hundred and then carried on his long spell without a century of his own.

(I’ll give you three guesses who wrote this after Headingley 2014)

The anger at the dismissal of a top player without an explanation focused on two main targets. We’ll get to one of them in 3 days time when we celebrate “Outside Cricket Day”, and Alastair Cook was very much the other. Cook was in the room when it happened. He was party to any decision. He promised to explain what happened, and never did (we await his next book for that). He was even, reportedly, one of those who staunchly would not countenance a return even when Comma took the Directorship. Cook, like it or not, became the lightning rod. That’s because massive, abject failures like the abomination of Headingley 2014, that cost us a series for crying out loud, were brushed under the carpet as the mis-steps of a cricket captaincy novice. A greenhorn with little to fall back upon, a callow captain, who we should cut some slack. Journalism went on holiday, and instead we saw puff pieces, plaintive cries from his press poltroons, seeking to blame it on “vile abuse from social media”, while conveniently forgetting to mention that Alastair “doesn’t read Twitter”.

Many say he was close to quitting both then and at Lord’s when England fell to another gormless, abject home defeat. Maybe some of the press corps were beginning to doubt themselves, but they soon changed their mind, with 95 wonderful reasons at Southampton enough to persuade them that the flowers in the garden smelled just fine, and that the general public were right behind him. This innings has gone down in folklore. Centuries by others were ignored to pay homage to the “back to his best” Cook. The reaction was unbecoming, a celebration, a vindication, a revelation. England were back and they didn’t need a weasel with the willow to help them out any more. Case closed.

We sat through two years of every mistake and loss the England team suffered being nothing to do with Cook, and every win a reinforcement of how right the powers that be were. The sacking from the ODI captaincy, which should have been much earlier but the ECB couldn’t afford to upset the Cooks or the press bag carriers, at a time when it was too late to really adjust spoke volumes. It should have happened in the test matches, but it didn’t.  In both cases he needed talent to carry him through, and the test arena brought that likelihood closer. A 2015 Ashes win was, at the very moment of triumph, announced as “redemption for Cook” and Cook alone. Not Broad who had performed manfully down under and had just bowled one of the great spells at Trent Bridge. Not Anderson who had a chastening, injury-ridden tour. Not Root who had been so poor in Australia that he had been dropped. No, it was Alastair Cook. You want to trace the decline of Nasser in our eyes, and you can look right there. This ceased being about Team England. It was Project Cook.

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To be an England fan upset at the tawdriness of the sacking of Kevin Pietersen over the past three years has been chastening and enlightening. It has been enervating and infuriating. Plenty of highs, many lows. At each step we’ve been told to move on, to get behind the lads, to see Cook less as an England cricket captain in the high-pressure international sport environment, and more a totem of leafy, pastoral England. Farmer, family man, decent fellow, lovely, polite, a true Englishman, a man we should aspire to be, rather than worry about a seemingly shallow, self-obsessed, “maverick” who cared about as much about England as a South Africa might. For Cook it was a calling, a sense of duty and patriotism. For Pietersen it was a job. A badge of convenience. “He only worked there”. Cook was something more pure.

It was a coincidence that Cook’s resignation should take place on this blog’s 2nd birthday. Being Outside Cricket began on this day two years ago, having shut down How Did We Lose In Adelaide, for reasons best kept back in the day. If the issue of Cook as sanctified captain, and KP as wronged outsider, did not matter, if the invocations to move on weren’t rightfully ignored and if the history and people involved did not matter, this blog, and its predecessor, would not have gained the traction and the repeat visitors it has. There are reasons for it. There is a reason why Chris and Sean joined the editorial “board”. There is a reason when on down days we are still turning over double the hits we did in other dry spells. Throughout the two years of BOC, and the previous year of HDWLIA, the voice of supporters who didn’t buy the Cook as wronged, wounded warrior was heard. Many didn’t want it heard, we were told to stop our guesswork, to buy the accounts given to us by those in the know. We waited for this cast iron evidence of what had happened, and yet, and yet. We still wait. We can only conclude that the establishment have nothing to add. It did Cook no favours. It also must be said that Cook hardly did himself any either. This blog, the commenters on it, and the Twitter community that I feel a part of put the case. Many did not want to hear it. They chose to revile us. More fool them.

Cook’s captaincy has been discussed at length. His achievements as leader should not be ignored. Wins in South Africa should not be sniffed at. A couple of Ashes triumphs, hardly on the scale of 2005, but you can only beat what is in front of you, were worthy, but in the case of 2015 owed a lot to some favourable conditions on the wickets outside London. India 2012 can never be downplayed – you are a good general when you win, and Cook did it his way. There’s some credit to go around. Of course there is. Yet the debit is not for now. It makes you wonder when it ever would have been.

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Cook’s reign, in my eyes, will be one of stagnation, not evolution. Of turbulence, not stability. Of poor external environments borne of the inability to be straight with those who might have understood if he had been, not good environments, that seem still to bring forth maddening inconsistency. It will also be remembered as a time when England sacrificed its box office performer and as a result, partly because of it, partly because the trend was inexorable, interest in the test team, in cricket, receded. Loyal supporters, cricket lovers, turned their backs on a game that would rather protect the weak, than assimilate the difficult. Cook’s captaincy was a withering vine from the moment we lost the 4th test at The Oval this summer. Inevitable defeat in India, preceded by a lamentable one (sorry, still think that) in Bangladesh will be spun as taking one for his new captain. I lost faith at Headingley in 2014, fresh from Melbourne in 2013, and I had no confidence in those who might have effected change. Cook paid the price, England paid the price. It’s just that many of his fans just don’t know that yet.

So I shall not lament his descent into the ranks. I shan’t be pouring lachrymose tributes here there and everywhere. I’m not going to plough forth into hyperbolic hypocrisy. I’m sure as hell, with the bloody awful external environment I find myself in at the moment, not going to feel one pang of remorse for my supposed campaign against him. Harsh words could be fired at Pietersen, and still are, but one smidgeon of criticism against the Lord of the Ewes and we’re all lumped in with that professional attention whore Piers Morgan, just because we happen to be on the same side of the argument. It’s crap deflection, it’s unbecoming of the pliant media, and fanboys and girls out there, and while I have always acknowledged that people can, and will disagree, with me on Cook, I’ve seen precious little civil coming back. Now it’s over, maybe we can all breathe, maybe we can all look forward, and maybe, just maybe, this cult will be over.

Lord knows, we need it to be.

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