Judging by the dead eyes and drawn features on his master’s face in the post-match Press exposure following England’s defeat to India in the second Test at Lord’s, you would not want to have been a cat in the Alastair Cook household when he got home.
Fair play to the captain for his honesty and even those observers who believe he should have quit, or been sacked, agreed the quiet determination with which he insisted this was not the time to bail out was impressive.
TV interviewer Mike Atherton even called it “heroic”. But, if you had approached him in the middle of all this brutal sombreness and offered him a million quid for a smile, I wager the money would never have left your trousers. And once again we are shown just how ridiculously overblown is some people’s idea of the importance of the job of England cricket captain.
In the moments after anyone is appointed, almost the first question they are asked is: How much does this mean to you? And the usual response is along the lines of “this is what you dream about when you are playing in the backyard”. Of course it is. To quote the music hall joke, most cricketers would give their right arm to do it and it is nothing but an honour.
Cook knows the deal; when things go right, like holding aloft the Ashes at home or winning in India for the first time in donkey’s years, there cannot be many greater feelings in professional sport. Whether you’ve earned all, some or none of the plaudits, invariably that success is down to your team, your plan, your tactics, your glory, your face, you.
But when, rather than if, mostly, things go awry, like they are doing right now, with seven loses in the last ten Test matches including back-to-back series losses to Australia and Sri Lanka, it is all your fault.
Recently, commenting on the choice of Jimmy Anderson for the man-of-the-match award after the first Test at Trent Bridge, rather than Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Bob Willis called it the worst such decision since Lancashire skipper John Abrahams got the gong in the 1984 Benson and Hedges final because his side won the match, even though he scored no runs and took no wickets.
As Bob pointed out, Abrahams won for calling correctly when the coin went up. So solidly was Mike Gatting’s reputation established when he led England to what turned out to be their last Ashes victory in the nearly 20 years before Michael Vaughan’s team won in 2005, that many assume the Middlesex stalwart was one of this nation’s more successful skippers and he certainly was a redoubtable and brave competitor who read the game brilliantly.
Yet when totting up the number of Test wins Gatt achieved in his career as captain, the fact is the two he presided over in England’s 2-1 Ashes victory Down Under in the winter of 1986-87 are both of them. As for Cook, on the other hand, all he has achieved until now seems to have disappeared into thin air.
Instead, when critics have discussed the failures of this current England team, the same spell which claimed Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff, Alec Stewart, Atherton and countless of his predecessors has taken hold. And its effect is that when Anderson pitches too short and wide on a first morning pitch made to order, Stuart Broad bowls and looks like he is struggling with the knee injury that will need surgery sooner or later, Matt Prior carries the appearance of a man who knows he is either not fit to play or his time is up and keeps wicket like it too, Ian Bell continues to look fazed by the notion of having to take over the starring role from Kevin Pietersen, Ben Stokes bats as though he has only just learned how, three men get out to the hook against Ishant Sharma with three fielders ready to catch the ball as long as they can stop laughing by the time it arrives and Moeen Ali, for all his promise, is incapable of bowling like Swanny, Cook must be more than partly to blame.
Even more so among those who finger him for KP’s sacking and as a result of the wholly disproportionate burden the England management placed on him by nominating him in terms of hushed devotion as the rock upon which they would build their new church. And the rub is that because they did so and because he is the captain, they simply cannot bring themselves to drop him as a player even though that actually may be the best thing for him and them in the long run.
Now there is nothing wrong with a futile gesture. Clearly, Cook must shoulder some of the blame for allowing Prior to carry on when crocked, though where were coach Peter Moores, the selectors and their physios at the time? And, as Steve Waugh indicated, his “funky” field settings (my God, I hate that expression) seem too close to a direct response to barbs from Shane Warne for comfort.
If he does jack it in, someone from Joe Root, Bell, Broad and Eoin Morgan will have to have a go. But the fact is that unless you possess the brain of Einstein, the skills at oratory of Churchill, the magic of Merlin or the luck of the devil, and even if you have all of the above, no amount of captaincy is going to bring you success if the team you are leading is playing crap and you yourself are failing at the thing you are in the side to do.
As Cook arrives at the Ageas Bowl for the third Test against India, he may have one, two or maybe three more in which to save his captaincy, but his captaincy alone is not going to save it, only winning Test matches and scoring Test runs, and he has a much better chance of the former if he is doing better than making 115 in seven Test innings.
Even Cook’s supporters know, as one suspects he does, that he is nowhere near a great England captain and may never become one. But he could still regain the form, technique and confidence that enabled him to make more Test centuries for them than anyone else.
So, nuts to the leadership, Alastair. It simply doesn’t matter as much as some would have us believe and definitely not as much as your runs would. For the rest of your summer and the rest of your career, batting should not be everything, but the only thing and if things don’t improve this week do yourself a favour, save your cat another kicking and quit.