For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings
It’s that time again, when the air is heavy with talk of the impending departure of an England captain. On the day Alastair Cook took over from Andrew Strauss amid the hurly-burly of the Kevin Pietersen crisis back in 2012 (if only Shakespeare had been around then), I informed the Essex man he had become the ninth skipper of my time in full-time cricket writing to which he replied, without pausing: “And you’ll see me off as well.”
No pleasure is taken when these things happen, it is just the nature of things.
Many in his shoes have never had the choice, it is to Cook’s great credit that he is one of the few who have earned the right to decide the timing and manner of their going.
Now, whether he likes it or not, thanks to mounting speculation, some from his own lips, England’s longest-serving leader, in terms of Tests, will be getting more than enough in his ear on the issue from well-wishers as well as those who have never forgiven him for their warped perception of his part in the sacking of KP.
For what it’s worth, the view from this corner is that Cook would be better off out of it and England would be better off with him out of it, too.
There are many reasons for giving up the best and the worst job in world cricket and some are better than others, but in Cook’s case quitting with dignity and purpose could be one of the best decisions of his entire captaincy for himself and his team.
Andrew Strauss, the Director of England cricket with whom Cook is due to have what could turn out to be his final debrief as leader at the end of the Indian series, has first-hand experience of the main reason why, for the individual concerned, change is sometimes for the better.
When Strauss himself quit, he did so mainly because he realised he had simply done his bit; enough sleepless nights, enough agonising, enough care, enough of the captaincy being a thief of his life and time. Mike Atherton, writing in the Times this week, reiterated the point: “Every England captain I have known has lived and breathed the job, their days and night dominated by thought of how to make things better. It takes its toll, more so in difficult periods of defeat.”
And that took me back to when Atherton fell on own his bat, at the end of his second failed attempt to win a series against West Indies in the Caribbean, in March 1998, the latest in a string of disappointments England sprinkled liberally all over the decade, and to his team-mate Phil Tufnell’s description of the moment.
For in his tour diary Postcards From The Beach, Tufnell wrote not only of the blow to self-esteem that comes with giving up the job, but also how it is a captain’s responsibility to stop just hoping for the best and put the needs of the side first.
Tufnell wrote: “Only Athers knows how much the last four years have taken out of him.
“But, from a cricketing point of view, what must really hurt is coming to the conclusion that it is in the best interests of the side for you to give up the job.
He has tried so hard to get things right and by standing down he is conceding that it hasn’t worked out the way he wanted it to.”
In terms of his win-loss ratio, Cook has enjoyed more much success than failure in his record-breaking reign, far more than Atherton, for example, with two Ashes wins and rare victories in India and South Africa.
Over time, however, both imposters drain the spirit and the soul as much as each other and, in the end, the fuel simply does run out.
The difference for Cook, and it could be glorious and affirming, is that, if he were walk away now, England could be the beneficiaries of thousands of Test runs he might still have to give were he free to concentrate fully on batting, the thing he does better than anything else, but which might be at risk should the captaincy really start to wear him down.
On more than one occasion, but most recently on the eve of this tour, Cook has made it abundantly clear that he relishes the idea of a couple of years back in the ranks, left to enjoy life at the top of the order and in the slips able to focus wholly on the next ball rather than having to worry for the whole team, the commentators, the media, England supporters and his critics.
In the same breath he has made sure to stress how much of an honour he believes the job to be.
But while, fleetingly, he might miss the kid’s dream of being England captain and his qualities as a leader are real, in his heart of hearts he has always known he is not a natural tactician and one suspects he will let out a huge sigh of relief when he can finally hand that responsibility to the next man.
Joe Root is ready. Everybody thinks it, save perhaps Graeme Swann, Cook has said it and if the signs are being read correctly the Yorkshire batsman will have just one more Test to wait before his accession is confirmed. Fears that asking him to lead the Test side and playing all three formats would be too much of a burden would need to be addressed but are not insurmountable.
Cook has led us, and England, down this path before and turned back before.
Whatever his coach and team-mates have said publicly, one senses, however, this time he may well keep on going and, if so, should do so without a backward glance not just because he has given so much, but because he still has so much to give.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, December 16 2016
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