The curious incident of a Cook in the limelight

In the Spotlight....
In the Spotlight….

Something a little odd happened yesterday.  England announced their World T20 squad, and to the surprise of no-one Kevin Pietersen was left out.  One or two journalists outside of Fleet Street – Andrew Miller at Cricinfo – did point out that on merit he should have been picked but of course it was always known this wasn’t about cricketing merit.  We’ve been here for some time of course, and while the ECB could have been clever and used this one short tournament to largely defuse the ongoing disconnect between themselves and large numbers of Outside Cricket people (amateur players, supporters that kind of thing – the worthless types who merely pay all their wages) they chose not to, and pretended it wasn’t happening.  Now that in itself wasn’t the odd thing, unless talking about the oddness and duplicity of the ECB itself.  No, the odd thing was that on the very day of the announcement, Alastair Cook suddenly was made available for interview at a Chance to Shine launch event, to numerous media sources.

Now clearly this is a fortuitous coincidence, what else could it be?  Having been silent since returning from South Africa (perfectly reasonably so) and without any cricket until the start of the domestic season, his schedule and that of the ECB clearly would have been rather busy, but obviously this one day was the notable gap in his busy diary, not a day earlier and not a day later.  As Goldilocks would have said, yesterday was “just right”.

Some cynics, who may also be such things as bilious inadequates, and are quite probably also impertinent, have wondered about this timing. One or two may have idly wondered if it was even deliberate, perhaps a specific arrangement to provide the press with ample copy gifted by the chosen one, there to fill numerous column inches and ensure that no one went off message and asked difficult questions.  Such dreadful scepticism should never form the basis of dealings with the ECB, who have after all shown themselves to be honest, upright types, not given to deceit, deception or subterfuge in any way, and certainly not the kind of body to brief against players or grotesquely insult the entire non-professional playing and watching base of England and Wales and then refuse to even acknowledge they might have annoyed anyone.

On that basis, one could hardly expect the written press to then acknowledge the timing, or to ever openly state that they were being played and draw attention to that, for that would mean that said interview might not transpire.  Equally, given the announcement of the squad for the World T20, it would of course be rather unusual to ask the England Test captain for his view on the exclusion of players who the great unwashed might be talking about.  For since they are nothing other than resources to be exploited, anything they might want to know is of no relevance whatsoever.  Now, doubtless when granted an audience with our noble lord, there would have been restrictions on the questions, so to pick an entirely random example from the air, it’s distinctly possible that the various ECB media teams may have expressed a preference for the Great Satan Pietersen’s name not to be mentioned.  And of course when faced with such a plaintive request, our brave souls with their pens could have no recourse except to obey – for how else would they gain the insights into the Glorious Leader’s thoughts and musings?

Now the press of course would rarely ever debase themselves by abiding by restrictions imposed by a sporting body in order to gain access to anyone, for such behaviour would be contrary to fearless and free journalism, and prevent interviews actually shining a light on what people might like to know rather than what those in authority want the message to be, so perhaps it is merely that there is no interest in the matter instead.  Perhaps no one cares or wants to know, which is why there are never any articles about Kevin Pietersen published, and nor are there any hits, let alone hundred of comments made.

In a pig’s eye.

Let’s be clear here, either the press supinely obeyed restrictions which is pathetic, or those involved didn’t think it worth asking the question, which is unprofessional.  It isn’t entirely black and white, for some who have been openly critical of many of the ECB’s actions over time bought into this, and presumably considered it worth the price in this instance in order to get the story. There is a professional decision to be made, and in each individual case it could be justified.  But when it is both so blatant and when it applies across every single person carrying the story, it moves beyond that.  When it is so obviously the ECB’s intention to stage manage the agenda and avoid scrutiny, then there really isn’t an excuse for it.  In some instances it’s entirely to be expected, in others, it’s frankly disappointing.

Perhaps less surprising, given the context, is that little of what Cook did say was given close examination, being allowed to speak for itself.  For example, he highlighted the problem of burn out for those players who play multiple formats for England, and he is right to as well, given how the ECB milk their players for as much revenue cricket as possible.  2016 has a ludicrous schedule with 16 Tests, 18 ODIs and 4 T20s – plus the World T20 itself.  So when he says

“Those two [Root and Stokes], plus Moeen, are dead certs in all three squads. And there’s going to have to be times to take those guys out of international cricket. When it becomes a chore, you need to protect them.”

he is quite right.  Yet those with longer memories may recall the occasional previous player bemoaning the workload of playing in all formats, particularly when playing through injury, only to be told to “man up” and stop complaining.  Indeed, when attempting to reduce that workload, the response was to deem it a retirement from two forms of the game.  So Cook is quite right, but all it does is highlight the hypocrisy of the ECB, not for the first time.

With England engaged in a one day series in South Africa, Cook had observations about how England had played the game:

“The game of one-day cricket has changed over the last two years. We were slow to catch on to that. We were one year behind the revolution. The guys who have gone in now and taken it forward are brilliant to watch and exciting to watch.”

This is also true, and he’s entirely correct that they are exciting to watch as well.  Given how England approached the World Cup last year, and Cook’s own part in that approach, it remains intriguing how this can have failed to merit a follow up question in some quarters.  For this is the “problem” with Cook all too often, what he says is very often entirely fair comment, but the lack of context and reminders about where it came from simply make those statements, left alone as they are, quite ludicrous.  Cook is no fool, he knows exactly that he was part of the problem, for when asked about the same thing in the Daily Mail he said

“As captain, I was fully responsible for that. It’s hard to take, but we were one year behind the revolution.”

Cook’s response to his sacking as ODI captain is well known, but the acute personal disappointment was always going to colour his response.  So that realisation does him credit, though with the proviso that not all player are afforded the privilege of being forgiven for speaking out of turn.   But certainly the Guardian was feeling especially warm and friendly for it went on

 Cook scored 766 runs in seven innings in Australia in 2010‑11 – “probably the best I’ll ever bat” – and is now targeting the next Ashes series there, in 2017-18, possibly as his swansong.

which is an example of telling the truth, but entirely avoiding the wider truth.  For Cook batted like God in that series, but has a dire record in the other Ashes series he has played – so why bring up that one that is five years ago now?  How does that have greater relevance than the South Africa series where he again struggled?  Articles that cosy up to him do him a huge disservice, for they merely give the impression of an adoring journalist sat at his feet listening to him tell sad stories of the death of friends instead of a player who might actually have something of value to say.  Readers can spot adoring flattery a mile off.  In the same article Cook talked about the change in approach from England

“We got to No1 in the world by being really methodical, very insular, and we ground [the] opposition down. We played to our strengths hugely. We became a very efficient side who didn’t have many bad days,”

which is as good a summary of that England side as I’ve seen.  It’s insightful, honest and accurate.

Likewise when talking to Lawrence Booth in the Mail, his observation that

“I thought I was going to step down as captain after the Ashes, whether we won or lost, but the way this side had gone, it didn’t feel like the right time. What’s motivating me at the moment is not just the runs, but pushing the side forward.”

has the ring of truth to it, and as far as the Test team goes, it’s probably what most others expected at the time too.  But Cook actually captained that side fairly well, having been utterly woeful as skipper up to that point.  Carrying on was probably as beneficial to the team as it is to a player who has finally grown into the role somewhat. Having done so, it reached the point that he had actually genuinely become the captain.  Cook was quick to praise Bayliss and Farbrace, and they do deserve credit for ensuring that Cook actually captains the side, rather than being a cipher for a coach itching to get into the action.  It is entirely possible that Cook could have flowered as captain far earlier than he did.

Cook does also suffer because of entrenched views about him, so even saying

“In T20, there is always an element of luck.  The best side wins it but, because it is such a short tournament and a short form of the game, it only takes a team to get on a roll, get a bit of confidence, and they’ll win it.”

can receive criticism for being viewed as a slight on the 2010 winning side, yet in the shortest form of the game luck does play a part.  That side could have gone out in the group stages had the weather been only slightly more unkind.  Cook is quite right.

He also suffers from the hypocrisy of those within the ECB structure.  Paul Downton, who Cook would hardly consider to have been entirely straight with him either, identified Kevin Pietersen’s desire to reach 10,000 runs as being emblematic of selfishness, yet Cook can be asked about the possibility of playing 200 Tests and say

“I’d love to do it”

Of course he would.  So would anyone in his position, and it would be a fine achievement too.  It is grossly unfair to criticise Cook for this as personal ambitions are entirely part of the game and are not just acceptable, but crucial for self-motivation.  Those who bang on about it being a team sport always miss the point; a batsman does not raise his blade on reaching a hundred because he’s really, really pleased for the team, nor does a bowler celebrate a five for by thinking instantly about the match position.  Thus it was equally unfair to use it as a stick to beat Pietersen with.  It is the double standards of response to the words depending on who says it.

Cook himself may wonder why he gets such a derisive response from so many quarters, having spoken and said many perfectly reasonable things.  The problem is those behind him and above him, and their positioning of him as the standard bearer for all they believe.  He bears some responsibility for allowing himself to be part of that, but he is not the main problem, he is simply being used to advance a specific agenda and image.  He is a fine opening batsman, not as great as his cheerleaders would claim him to be (in the same way that Pietersen wasn’t as great as some of his main cheerleaders would claim him to be – not that it is relevant in itself to what happened), but a very fine batsman still.  He took his time about it, but he has developed into a perfectly competent Test captain too.  The problem for him is that he is also the visible face of a regime that regards all others with complete contempt.  And that the press have allowed this to unfold and continue to uphold it.

As long as this state of affairs continues, the response will be the same.  Not from all, but from enough to worsen the reputation of all involved.


A Hornet’s Nest

Over at our friends at the Full Toss, a proper debate has been going on – it started initially on Twitter, with Tregaskis raising a point, and snowballed from there.  The whole thing can be read through Maxie’s post on TFT, and I’m not going to repeat it here, so the link is as follows:

Here’s the thing.  I like Maxie.  I like his writing, and I like him personally.  I’ve had a couple of good nights out with him, and enjoyed his company thoroughly.  Which is why I know that saying I disagree with his premise is not going to be met with shock and horror, but more “Oh really, why?”   Because if there’s one thing I do know about him, it’s that he’s exceptionally comfortable with the idea people hold different views to him – it’s something that always makes me smile when you get the more virulent criticism of him for his articles, he is quite interested in those who don’t agree.

It’s one of those things that is striking across a few of these blogs.   Dmitri is the same, forever worrying about whether his perspective is a reasonable one.  The irony is that it’s me who tells him to ignore the trolling and the abuse, yet I’m the one who is probably thought of as less polemical and more nuanced.  The true beauty of all of these debates is that it involves real people, who can be hurt.

From his post, it seems Lawrence Booth in particular felt that he was being unfairly maligned, and here I have enormous sympathy with him.  I really can’t see a thing wrong with something like a golf day that might involve a few players.  And this is why – in my own line of work there is a fair bit of what we might call “promotional” activity.  The deal is what is has been for generations across many kinds of career, we take them out, spoil them, show them a good time and when it comes to contracting maybe they’ll be better disposed to us than our competitors. Naturally, our competitors do the same.  It’s the kind of thing that tends to be pontificated about as somehow dubious, but it’s normal practice.  More specifically, I’d fall down in a faint if something like that made a potential client switch to me, it doesn’t happen, it’s way more complex than that involving building trust and – the key point – getting to know people.

For journalists, their stock in trade is copy for their newspapers.  It’s nothing like as simple as on here – I can write any old rubbish and click “Publish” and up it goes.  The press pack have to pass it via their editors and hope that some kind of simulcrum of what they wrote appears in the paper the following day.  It is extremely easy to be totally cynical of all media output, and it just ain’t that simple.

Want the proof?  I can write a piece on here talking about Kevin Pietersen, and the hits we get double from normal.  Hell, just the fact his name is used will add a few extra ones. It’s extremely easy for us to manipulate the content if we were so inclined, and thus when online papers do it, the line that it’s clickbait might be true, but it’s successful clickbait.

Neither Dmitri nor I make a penny from this place, so we can say what we like, but it’s pretty easy to see how commercial sites love it when you can do something that straightforward to get extra hits.

So for a newspaper journalist, first and foremost they need to create copy that attracts attention.  That might be about – say – Joe Root, as we’ve seen with the Telegraph interview with him that has got plenty of notice.  But what we can’t do is expect those articles to come out of the ether, and that’s where the whole point of argument has stemmed from.  It’s a fair bit easier for former England batsman and captain Michael Vaughan to do it, but for a normal cricket journalist, to provide an angle requires them to do the legwork both before and after.

We know what Root (poor lad, still using him as the example) did in raw figures and anyone can write that, it’s just that barely anyone will read it because it’s dull.  How does a journalist provide context and colour?  It’s by getting to know them, talking to them, allowing a sufficient degree of trust that they will speak to them in the first place.  So both because of my rationale about hosting events, and because of the peculiarities of sports journalism, events such as a golf day are critical.  What else would people desire of their correspondents?  Glorious isolation? It simply is not going to happen, and the journalists aren’t doing their jobs if it does happen.

The unguarded comment from someone suckered in by a journalist they trust is in itself part of the job, but they can’t do that unless they know them in the first place.  It’s just not a fair argument to attack people for doing what is in reality their job.

On here we have offered up plenty of criticism for journalists not holding the ECB or ICC to account, and those criticisms stand absolutely. The frustration about that can’t mean though that everything they do is therefore criticised, we have to be fair about this. When we get a fascinating interview with Nick Compton, it’s because that journalist spent time getting to know him well enough for him to talk, and created sufficient trust for him to open up. It doesn’t help anyone to pretend the means by which that happened shouldn’t.

Criticism for not doing their jobs properly is legitimate and necessary. But not for when they are.  And heaven only knows there are enough things to complain about there, for there really is much too cosy a relationship between some journalists and the ECB, while the fact that the senior cricket correspondent of one of the broadsheets can’t even be bothered to watch Death of a Gentleman remains as pathetic a dereliction of duty as there is.  But seeing reds under every bed weakens the argument, it doesn’t strengthen it.  Sometimes they’ve simply done nothing wrong.

Pay Attention At The Back

Barney Ronay has an interview with Jonathan Trott.

Interesting quote near the end:

Was it simply a case of too much cricket for a famously immersive player? “Maybe a bit.” And the atmosphere? That toxic dressing room? The mood hoover? The Big Cheese and all the rest of it? “Maybe it did contribute a little bit,” Trott admits. “It became very serious and disciplined. There wasn’t much laughter going on.”

Chin scratched. Interest piqued.