ECB’s flawed era asks too much of Cook
I feel sorry for Alastair Cook.
After a torrid winter, the ECB have invested all of their egotistical capital into backing Cook – rightly or wrongly – to the extent that any failings of this irritatingly named “new era” will appear to be his fault, rather than that of the team as a whole. More pertinent is that the ECB will absolve themselves of any responsibility, despite creating and persevering with an administrative structure that hinders rather than helps the national side. Their emphasis is on commerce, and shaping their own narrative. Picking the 11 best individual cricketers seems peripheral to them, as long as the people they do pick “are from the right sort of families”.
Its been one endless spiral of misery since the boat sailed to Brisbane in November 2013. As a supporter, time invested in the team was rewarded with nothing but abject misery. A 5-0 drubbing was extremely galling to sit watching through the night. Inevitably, people wanted there to be repercussions – a large amount of scrutiny was placed on the position of Cook as captain. As we know, the ECB backed him with all of their worth, and instead decided to take their chance to exile Kevin Pietersen from the side, despite his match-winning ability.
Leaving aside the debate over He Who Must Not Be Picked, the problem with this strategy was that the ECB had managed to make the success or failure of the “new era” rest on the shoulders of Alastair Cook.
Cook has had some remarkable success as captain. Leading the side to a win in India is one of the finest victories an English leader can achieve, and he also won a home Ashes series 3-0. However, his style of captaincy is not the same as that of Andrew Strauss before, who had a brilliant motivational ability. Strauss was no quirky tactician, but England had a clearly defined plan, which he had confidence that his side could implement. The 4-0 whitewash of India, and the resounding victory in Australia where England won three matches by an innings, demonstrated the fighting qualities of Strauss. England had the plans, and the players to carry them out. Cook’s problem in this regard is that some of these vital players have declined, but also that he does not seem to have the ability to lift his side when things go wrong.
The fourth day at Headingley was dreadful. There were undoubtedly issues related to Cook’s leadership and tactics: The plan to give Mathews a single every over, and not even attempt to get him out, was mad. He settled in and brilliantly punished England. Cook’s lack of faith in his spinner, his insistence on bowling his main seamers lengthy, tiring spells, and his lack of an alternative strategy meant he warranted criticism. Worse, though, was that the team appeared rudderless. There was no direction, no inspiration. However, the bowlers didn’t get their lengths right, England dropped chances, and senior players who so often could be relied on to drag the team back into the game shrank into the shadows. It was a collective failure, but scrutiny inevitably centres on the captain. That Moeen Ali played a sensational rearguard knock that nearly saved the game showed that there is great hope for the future, but it still doesn’t hide the huge cracks that remain in the England set-up.
Cook doesn’t appear to have the motivational abilities of those that have gone before him. He is a captain who has to led by example – success in India was a direct consequence of him scoring a mountain of runs. Unfortunately, when form deserts him, his contribution to the side diminishes with it. If you ignored the ECB narrative, and their heavy investment in Cook as captain, you’d think that the best thing for him to do as an individual would be to relinquish the captaincy and focus on his batting, which at its best is a seriously important component of this England side. Unfortunately, its all got too political for that sort of simple solution.
The first problem, as I keep mentioning, is the ECB: They have thrown everything behind Cook. He is not a natural leader, but he’s being made out to be one. Because of this investment in him, the problems inherent in the system – focus on ‘team ethic’ rather than picking the best players, employing a coach who has failed before – are tied up with his position as captain. Why can’t we sack Giles Clarke for his career of slimy bureaucratic bullshitting, and his ability to continuously make decisions that are detrimental to cricket? Cook shouldn’t be totally absolved of any responsibility – after all, he did agree to sacking Pietersen in alliance with the ECB – but he is in a position which attributes more culpability to him than it should. Far too many egos are on the line for Cook to be free to take the simple decision to stand down in order to focus on his own game.
The second problem is the absence of a clear alternative leader. Ian Bell has been mooted as an alternative, and despite not really being much of a tactician either, it might be useful to freshen up things. It certainly won’t worsen the side – unless it has a significant negative impact on Bell’s batting. When members of the press are suggesting that Eoin Morgan could come into the side and take the captaincy, you know that the cupboard really is bare.
Thirdly, its impossible for a man who has been captain and admitted shortcomings in that department to return to being a rank-and-file member of the team without the memories staying with everybody. Previous long-term captains – Vaughan, Strauss, Hussain – all retired either shortly or immediately after they announced the end of their tenures. Cook is only 29, and ability to score heavy runs at the top of the order means he still has a number of years left in him. It is a shame that someone who is destined to become England’s all time top run-scorer, and already the man who has a record number of Test centuries for England, will have his achievements tarnished by the association with captaincy difficulties. Those memories sadly won’t just disappear.
My current sadness about this malaise England are in is not that people are criticising the team – they warrant significant scrutiny, and really need to find a way to improve – but that genuine, passionate fans are turning on Cook and co, hoping that England will lose to kick-start some kind of revival. It might do England good to lose this series, but to see the fans so angered by the team is chastening in itself. Watching England lose has always been a part of the game, but it feels that in 2014 everyone has an agenda that has to be furthered, every game and stat another arrow to be fired at those who disagree. The ECB’s hopeless management over recent months has played a significant part in that, with all their media speak “new era” bollocks. England cricket almost has to be de-politicised before we can all just enjoy watching us win or lose once again.
England were very close to winning at Lord’s, at which I was present for the last day of play. Cook set good innovative fields and rotated his bowlers adequately. The problem is not whether he can set a silly field – anyone can – but how he leads the side as an individual. The Headingley day four debacle has exposed a number of serious flaws that remain, chief among which is Cook’s ability to motivate a side. They looked rudderless. I think it would be best for Cook to stand down and just focus on regaining his form. He still has a huge role to play at the top of the order for a number of years. Ultimately, I don’t think Cook is a particularly bad captain, but he isn’t a man who seems able to inspire or innovate when things go against England.
To ensure that writing this piece has been a complete waste of time, Cook spoke after the late defeat at Headingley to say that he never quits, and he’s “in it for the long haul.” Good luck to him. The absence of any standout alternatives, combined with the immense amount of pie that would smash them in the face, means the ECB won’t move to change anything either. There is too much on the line for that to happen.
I am not one to call for people to be sacked. I don’t have faith that the ECB would do such a thing even if it were the right decision. I just think that Cook needs to relinquish the role in order to offer more to the side. The desertion of his form and series defeats in Australia and now at home to Sri Lanka have brought his position under intense scrutiny. The vultures are circling.