Freshly knighted but perhaps not so freshly minted after the lambing season on his wife’s farm, Sir Alastair Cook begins his new life as a former England cricketer – an existence that will mean notching up the runs for Essex and giving his tuppence worth for the BBC.
A gig in the media is what former captains of England can expect these days, and many have made the leap from player to commentator in print, vision or sound, and sometimes in all three.
Cook kicked off his Sunday Times column giving a big interview to the paper’s chief sports columnist, David Walsh, an excellent journalist who, irony of ironies, also ghosted Kevin Pietersen’s last book The Autobiography. In that tome, Pietersen described Cook as cricket’s Ned Flanders, one assumes for being a goody two-shoes unwilling to criticise team mates and coaches even in private.
As rangy interviews tend to do, there is a bit of archaeology, exhuming bits of Cook’s past to serve as pointers to what made him click well enough to become England’s top-scoring batsman in Tests.
In that respect, most of the piece jogs along nicely until the jarring revelation towards the end that, irrespective of his new role, he will not criticise James Anderson or Stuart Broad, both current players and two bowlers to which the England teams under Cook’s captaincy teams owe much of their success.
“I’m not going to criticise James Anderson if he has a bad day,” said Cook in the Sunday Times. “Broady too. There is no way around it. We have been through so much together, especially Jimmy. I have too much respect for him and I am too friendly with him. They might not be around for much longer and it will be easier with the next guys. Most of all I will try to remember how hard the game of cricket is.”
If it all sounds laudable that’s because it is in a blood-is-thicker-than-water sort of way. It’s also fine providing you don’t want the benefits of being a columnist with one of Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspapers – which is a fat fee and a media presence that keeps you in the public eye. But if you take them, you surely owe it to be honest and robust about the game, Jimmy Anderson included.
I can see where he is coming from, sort of. As a cricketer who suddenly went from playing the game to writing about it I had the same conundrum, though I decided, within a week of being given a job with the Independent on Sunday, that I had a new master to serve and could not do so half-heartedly. You cannot do it properly with one foot still in the dressing-room.
Michael Atherton was England captain at the time I made the switch to what Eddie Butler once described as ‘the dark side.’ Although we had played together previously and were friends, I felt no compunction about criticising him or his team.
‘Without fear or favour’ was my guiding principle, something I felt Athers would understand, which of course he didn’t, at least not until he’d made the move to journalism himself a decade later.
The big difference, between our experience and that confronting Cook’s, is that the England team is a very different beast now. Also Cook has not yet retired, fully, which also makes it tricky deciding whether, or not, to pull one’s punches.
With central contracts long established, England regulars now bond like county players used to do in mine and Atherton’s eras. Cook and Anderson have played over 100 Tests together, which is at least ten years of living in each others’ pockets. Such prolonged closeness cannot have happened often in international cricket.
More than that, though, they appear to have enough mutual respect to have appointed one another as godparents to each other’s children. Yet, I would argue, if a friendship is truly sound then it can withstand honesty, which means Cook should realise if any criticism of his old muckers is fair, they will accept it and it won’t threaten any friendships. If it does, they simply cannot be that close.
It is hypothetical, but say Anderson is involved in a sledging controversy or a ball-tampering incident. Both are potentially huge talking points but despite that the star columnist makes his excuses and says, ‘sorry, I cannot comment’.
That is why, if you take the media dollar, you have to do so free of condition or compromise – something Cook, by his own admission, appears not to be.
DEREK PRINGLE / Photo: Getty Images