(Photo: Getty Images)
By Peter Hayter
With the first Test of the summer, against Pakistan at Lord’s fast approaching, the clock is ticking for director of England cricket Andrew Strauss to appoint the new National Selector to replace James Whitaker who slipped quietly out the back door at the end of March.
The position has been advertised, with the successful candidate at liberty to appoint one other full-time selector along with a network of scouts.
The air is buzzing with talk of a new approach and new ideas, and Lord knows we need them because for the regime change to make any sense at all, the very least we can hope for from the new selection committee is that it has the imagination to adopt a more far-sighted approach and the ruthlessness to follow it through without fear, favour or sentiment.
And the first item on their agenda for change has to be the future of Alastair Cook. It seems disrespectful to be calling into question the right to a place in the side of England’s former captain, most capped player and leading all-time run scorer, with 12,028 runs and 32 Test hundreds to his name and an average of 45.73.
His successor as skipper, Joe Root, has already stated that he fully expects the 33-year-old to open the batting against Pakistan and that Cook will “answer questions with a big score”. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? And, as Cook himself is fully aware, the questions keep piling up.
At the end of the Ashes defeat, Root also stated that the planning for the next trip Down Under, four years hence, had to start now.
By the time that starts Cook will be closing in on his 37th birthday, not in itself an issue as long as his form were to hold up, but, by then, assuming he stayed in the side for the intervening period, he would also have played the best part of four more years of Test cricket, put himself through four more years of nets, four more years of being away from home for long periods both here and abroad, four more years and pushing himself to the limits mentally and physically, four more years of everything.
And he would be doing all this in the safe and sure knowledge that the best he could expect would not be to become a greater player, but to stop himself becoming a lesser one.
For the record, Cook has passed 50 only twice in his last 24 Test innings, stretching back to last July.
His supporters will argue that when he does it is worth waiting for because on both occasions he went on to make double hundreds, first against West Indies at Edgbaston and then, memorably, in the Boxing Day Test against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. But, as he knows, it is what happens when he does not which means that, during the time off from county cricket now afforded him by the England management, he should seriously consider whether carrying on is the right thing for him and for England.
Evidently, 216 runs in 16 innings at 13.5, is nowhere near what Cook demands of himself or what England should accept of him, particularly when the rest of the batting continues to look so fragile.
Cook’s contribution to England cricket as a batsman has been immense and while he was never entirely comfortable with the captaincy, his dedication and focus made him a more than decent leader by example. And it is for that and much more, including his quiet dignity during the rabble-rousing over his part in the Kevin Pietersen affair, which persuaded many of us to argue that he deserved to choose the manner and timing of his going.
For obvious reasons, however, that only works up to a point, not least because no-one wants to be thought of as a quitter and this stuff means a huge amount to Cook, in which context you will also recall how tough he found it to give up the skipper’s job even though, deep down, he knew it was exactly the right call.
And it is not merely his apparently increasing vulnerability to the new ball, which against the Kiwi attack made him look more like a walking wicket with every delivery, but also the fact that throughout the two-match series he gave the impression he’d rather be quite a few places else including back home on the farm, which suggests this is the time for the decision over his future to be taken politely, but firmly, out of his hands.
By a new National Selector, with a new selection committee, employing imagination and ruthlessness, for example.