THE happiest image of a good week for county cricket was that of Alastair Cook celebrating his century against Derbyshire at Chelmsford with a rock-the-baby salute to his new daughter, giving a whole new meaning to Graham Gooch’s favourite term: “Daddy hundred”.
Gone in an instant was the exhausting weight of a tumultuous winter, of the battering administered by Mitchell Johnson, the loss of the Ashes and of his own form, of Jonathan Trott temporarily and Graeme Swann for good, the departure of coach Andy Flower and, above all, the trauma of the Kevin Pietersen saga, the abuse he suffered in the fallout and the frustration of being constrained by a confidentiality agreement from giving his side of the story, all replaced by a smile that spoke not so much of relief but of renewed enthusiasm for the game and his place in it.
Yet two separate but connected events taking place either side of the River Thames over the next few days mean his rediscovered peace of mind will once again be tested. With his unfailing affability, strong sense of a proper way of doing things and easy smile, not to mention his ability to score more hundreds than any other England Test cricketer, few men would be better miscast as a pantomime villain, but that is precisely the role Cook has been given by Pietersen’s supporters, chief among them the shy and retiring Piers Morgan.
But with the outcome of interviews for the job of England’s head coach at Lord’s due early next week (it was all going well until I said let’s pick Pietersen!) and Essex’s match at KP’s “home” county of Surrey starting on Sunday, Cook’s part in the ending of the maverick batsman’s England career will once again ensure he is right back in the firing line.
For those who do not subscribe to Twitter, here is just a selection of what Morgan has had to say to his millions of followers about the England captain and his decision to de-integrate their most destructive batsman of the past decade.
“Repulsive little weasel,” Morgan said. “Emerging as one of the weakest, spineless, most ineffectual management lick-spittles in the history of sports captaincy.” And, for the sake of balance: “Gutless twerp.”
“I wouldn’t trust Alastair Cook to take my dog for a walk,” continued Morgan, who owns an Afghan Hound named Kevin, apparently, before accusing him of sitting in silence while England managing director Paul Downton told Pietersen his future, “looking at the floor throughout the assassination meeting”.
And when he gets to The Oval I’m sure Cook will be delighted at the chance to catch up with Surrey’s Graeme Smith, who as well as being Pietersen’s county captain, has somehow, despite their past history, now also become his best mate.
“It is surprising,” commented Smith on KP’s sacking. “If you have a real quality player like that, that you would not have tried to make it work. If it was a guy in his last season and he is becoming grumpy then you start to look at things differently. But Kevin’s fit, he’s healthy, he’s still performing well.
“Cook needs to answer some important questions…. Do the players trust him?… To me, England look a bit stale, they need new energy, they need a direction, someone to galvanise them.”
No doubt Cook will be grateful for Smith’s concern. Morgan is correct in one aspect: it is clear that Cook is chiefly responsible for Pietersen’s sacking. Whatever Flower’s opinion and experience, whatever team-mates thought of his divisiveness inside the dressing room, no matter how many reasons for sacking him were contained in Downton’s famous two-page dossier, once it was decided to re-invest in the Essex man as captain and leader, the final call was down to him.
And when the new coach is revealed, the size of the trust placed in his judgement by Downton and England will be emphasised by the fact that whoever gets the job will repeat the news that Pietersen has no part in their future.
That may or may not be fair on Cook, and other critics have highlighted other cricketing reasons why his captaincy should be called into question, tactical inflexibility among them, and only time will tell whether what feels right to so many actually turns out to work.
But those who call Cook “toady” presumably do so because they feel he had sympathy for Pietersen’s views, particularly when it came to Flower’s “schoolteacher” approach but, in the face of the management’s determination to get rid, betrayed him for the sake of retaining the captaincy.
In fact, it is Cook who feels betrayed that, after working so hard in the face of such strong opposition to bring Pietersen back into the fold following “textgate”, he should be repaid with constant sniping behind his back and sometimes in front of it.
And far from being spineless, gutless and weak, Cook took a stand he knew would make him, in some quarters, as popular as rabies, and he did so because he felt it to be not just preferable but absolutely necessary.
In the main, English cricket is ready to support him. But, while he has already achieved so much, this is surely the defining moment of Cook’s career