You would struggle to believe it given all the hoopla around Alastair Cook’s recent retirement from international cricket, but he wasn’t a universally popular figure. Of course, he was widely respected and was much loved, but not to the degree of unanimity suggested by commentators, pundits and journalists.
In fact, to even criticise Cook was to make you somehow anti-cricket, or an “ignorant, gormless troll” as Jonathan Agnew put it. Here was a player cut from the purest English cloth: privately educated, well spoken, well-mannered and stoic. The way he batted also fed into this narrative, since he was never flashy and always embodied the stiff upper lip ways of high society from Victorian England. Not for him the ghastly ramp shots and uncouth six hitting of the modern day.
It resulted in a standout career in the annals of English cricketing history. No one has more runs, more centuries, more minutes on the field, more dot balls, more tests, than Cook. Certainly, no one is accusing him of being a failure.
He left an indelible mark on two of England’s finest achievements this decade. Firstly, in the 2010/11 Ashes he led the way in putting Australia to the sword, rescuing the Brisbane Test with a double century in the second innings, alongside centuries from Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott – only the second time in England’s history that the top three has all scored centuries. Cook added further centuries in Adelaide and Sydney as England took the series 3-1.
Then in India in 2012, newly installed as captain, Cook led from the front. Firstly, he contributed a second innings ton in Ahmedabad in a losing cause. He then notched two further centuries in Mumbai and Kolkata as England came from behind to notch another memorable series win.
In those halcyon days, Cook had progressed through the ranks, installed himself as an undisputed member of the side, risen to assume the captaincy and was leading the charge as England confirmed themselves as the best side around.
It’s testament to the lopsided coverage of his career, however, that his captaincy has barely been mentioned. No one captained more Tests for England than Cook, but few have done so as poorly.
Commentators always urged that Cook ‘leads by example’. The trouble with leading by example is that, once the runs dry up, what exactly is the example? Cook wasn’t exactly a tactical thinker on the game and bowled his bowlers by numbers; he rarely had a feel for when a bowler could strike or could ask different questions of a set batsman. Virat Kohli is experiencing a similar problem at the moment. He is leading the way for India with the bat, but lacks the tactical nous to winkle out victories in tight situations. When Plan A doesn’t work, who knows what Plan B is.
After the hugely impressive win in India, England went and drew in New Zealand. Just. A gritty batting performance in Auckland ensure a 0-0 draw. What England would give for such grit at the moment!
Cook notched a century in the first Test in Dunedin and registered another at Headingley as the Kiwis were dispatched 2-0 back in Blighty. Then came the start of Cook’s irrevocable downturn.
England won the 2013 Ashes series in England 3-0. It was straightforward enough, but it wasn’t a classic series. Cook himself contributed three 50s but no centuries, and the series was played out against the bizarre backdrop of the debuts of Simon Kerrigan and Chris Woakes at the Oval. The latter has gone on to justify the enthusiasm, the former has all but retired, ruined by his disastrous outing in which Cook barely knew what to do with him, as was so often the case with spin bowlers.
There were also rumours doing the rounds at the time that Cook has been caught out having an extra-marital affair. The collapse in his own form only added further fuel to that fire as he played like a distracted man.
Still, the urn was retained and the squad set sail for the return series Down Under. It was to be the worst England tour in a very long time. Mitchell Johnson ran through a terrified looking England line-up, there was a withdrawal owing to illness from Trott, Graeme Swann decided he was done mid-series and Kevin Pietersen, the least shit of the batsmen and the only one to give a bit back to Johnson, was viewed as disinterested and disruptive. The Sydney Test was to be the unknown finale for one of England’s greatest batsmen.
It is this incident where the divide about Cook can be found. It was clear from that series that he was a poor captain. He had absolutely no idea how to tackle the Aussies and his leadership was bizarre, with no one looking to support him. He cut a miserable, isolated figure as Australia won comfortably from an uncertain position at the MCG.
The axing of KP left a bitter taste in the mouth. It was handled appallingly and to certain degree, Cook was pushed under the bus by new ECB MD, Paul Downton. Downton was a complete clown (and I’m being polite). ECB chairman Giles Clarke, too, fuelled the flames by describing Cook as ‘the right sort of person’ to lead England. Then there was the ‘outside cricket’ press release, slamming Piers Morgan’s Twitter comments but also lambasting large swathes of England fans who were rightly disgruntled at the dropping of the side’s best player for no apparent reason.
Cook, upon his retirement, has suggested that he wanted to give KP more time, that he should be excluded for a while, but not indefinitely. It wasn’t his decision. But he was involved in it. As leader of the side, had he really wanted KP in it, he would have said so. Instead, Cook was just a patsy for the ECB and, most importantly, the right sort of chap. It neatly sums up his leadership: indecisive and ineffective.
England then lost a home series, in May, to Sri Lanka. That was arguably more humiliating than losing the Ashes 5-0. In this era of cricket, home sides tend to dominate with tailored bowling attacks and an inspired Johnson would later run through South Africa, in South Africa, too. But losing at Headingley to Sri Lanka? It was a new nadir.
England went on to lose the first Test of the 2014 series against India at Lord’s, but came back to win the series 3-1. Cook was being backed by those above and a large number in the stands, despite the fact that his captaincy tenure had become untenable. He wouldn’t relinquish the post until 2017 though, once England had been hammered in India.
Another factor in the coverage of Cook has been the few mentions his ODI career has received since he announced his retirement. He did enjoy some success in the format, but once the fielding rules changed in 2013 and fielding sides had to have five fielders inside the ring, Cook couldn’t find a way to make the contributions he needed to make. He simply couldn’t beat the infield and was asphyxiated.
His ODI career ended in total humiliation in Colombo in 2014. Stubbornly refusing to accept the inevitable, he clung on to the captaincy so desperate was he to lead the side at the 2015 World Cup. His form had collapsed and he just wasn’t good enough to succeed in the modern one-day environment. In the fifth ODI he nicked off to Mahela Jayawardene in the slips and stood there questioning whether the catch had carried. It had, comfortably, and it was a humiliating end to Cook’s ODI career, questioning the integrity of someone like Jayawardene. Cook was put out of his misery, but head coach Peter Moores remained in situ and England were, that word again, humiliated at the World Cup. With similar personnel, Trevor Bayliss and new captain Eoin Morgan have turned England into the best ODI side in the world.
To say that Cook was a selfless cricketer flies in the face of his actions at the end of his ODI career and his stubborn refusal to step down as Test captain. His stubbornness was praised, yet he was also selfless, apparently. He would later appear on Sky Sports’ darts coverage that Christmas insisting that he had been hard done by. Perhaps he had been: on the eve of the World Cup, Moores suddenly thought that Gary Ballance would make a good number three.
The KP affair resurfaced in 2015 when Andrew Strauss replaced Downton. He swiftly got rid of Moores but was backing his former opening partner as captain of the Test side. Would KP come back? Andrew Strauss had called him a ‘c*nt’ live on Sky Sports unwittingly, believing the microphones were off, and his personal vendetta against a man he probably had just reason to hold such an opinion on ensured there would be no way back for KP. Cook attended that final meeting and remained mute. A strong leader throughout.
It’s a shame that Cook’s career was so divisive and it wasn’t entirely his fault. Had he relinquished the captaincy after the 2013/14 Ashes he would have swerved the KP debacle. And the Sri Lanka debacle. He should have jumped before he was pushed in the ODI side, too, a turn of events which undoubtedly played a role in his Test retirement. It’s always more satisfying to see someone who has made such valuable contributions leave when they are still wanted, like Cook has in Test cricket.
The whole sorry episode forced England fans down unnecessary paths. Yes, Cook has been a very good player, but he was a rubbish captain and, in truth, he should be England’s top ever scorer. Had he failed to surpass Graham Gooch’s total of 8,900 runs from 161 Tests, it would have been hugely disappointing.
His tally off 33 centuries will stand as a record for some time though, with modern Test batting conditions being more hazardous than they perhaps have ever been. Teams play in a multitude of countries and conditions and it would a surprise, for example, should England win in Sri Lanka this winter.
Cook was the ECB’s golden boy and he has been strangely impervious to media criticism. His contributions of late have been few and far between. When the chips have been down, Cook hasn’t been delivering like he used to. But the media and many fans have been so desperate to praise him that his 244* in Melbourne was held up as a sign that he was back. So was his double against a wretched West Indies at Edgbaston last year. They were huge contributions, but they stood in useless isolation.
Cook was a good player, yes, but he wasn’t the greatest. He was awkward slip fielder. He too often in recent years failed to stand up to quality bowling attacks. In the end and unlike at other points throughout his career, he had the good sense to jump before he was pushed. One last century at the Oval has many lamenting his retirement but in truth, it was a sign of what Cook has become. Without the pressure, on the most benign surface of the summer, he delivered.
It was a fitting end for a player who offered so much to Test cricket, but who has had his faults airbrushed out in the desperation to depict him as a hero. He was also, at times, a villain as well.
By Miles Reucroft