In Defence of Alastair Cook and English Test Cricket

English international cricket has a tendency to be dramatic. It is simply the nature of the form fluctuations that have dictated results over the last few years. There have been many highs and many lows, but yesterday’s defeat to India at Lord’s was perhaps one of the lowest in a while. There was certainly a darker form of negativity in the air than after the 5-0 drubbing by Australia in the winter, which claimed the careers of Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen, two of the national side’s most revered squad members. A more significant problem, however, – and this is an issue with much British sport, especially team efforts – is the reaction of the media, fueling talk of overhaul, revolution and mass change to a cricketing side that is already a bit of a skeleton. The image of Alistair Cook as leader is a relatively new one, and, until 8 months ago, it was well-respected too. Now, Cook looks to be under severe pressure to resign. But just how good an idea is his removal?

The Winter of Discontent?

No one seems to know what the England side needs, nor where to get it from. The current squad is half full of players with only a handful of tests to their name, and those with significant experience (Cook, Bell, Prior, Broad, Anderson), the last an exception perhaps, are hardly in consistently-good form. Thus the talk has turned to a tactical change. Former Captain and World Number 1 batsman Michael Vaughan came out yesterday recommending that Cook stand down for the rest of the summer and that he be replaced with a county captain (incidentally whom? Eoin Morgan? Chris Read?). Vaughan had several reasons for suggesting this. Firstly, Cook hasn’t had a genuine rest from the England test side since he fought his way in aged just 21 away in India in the winter of 2005-06. Some time back at Essex might do him some good in both a cricketing and psychological sense. After all, both Vaughan himself and Andrew Strauss famously had lengthy periods away from the test arena, returning to find form and end their careers on distinct highs.

Secondly, Vaughan believes that a change in leadership and a ‘revamp’ might shake the side up a bit and make the whole outfit more competitive. Whilst Vaughan’s first reason is perhaps logical and based on evidence, this second one is a little more suspect. There has, for one, already been a revamp recently. After the hideous 5-0 whitewash down under, Coach Peter Moores and Cook declared a new era in English test cricket, sacking middle-order powerhouse Kevin Pietersen (in much opinion, prematurely) in order to change the socio-political dynamic of the squad. Is it not a bit soon to be threatening a similar consequence upon Cook himself? Commentators are defending their stance by pointing to England’s record in the last 10 tests (7 lost, 3 drawn) and saying that team form says the captain should resign.

There are problems with this methodology. Firstly, Cook’s record prior to the 2013/14 Ashes down under was good, with a first series victory away in India for almost 30 years, and a 3-0 drubbing of the Aussies at home in the summer of 2013. Secondly, the home series loss against Sri Lanka early this summer could have gone either way, and should not be included in the list of results (despite turning out against England’s favour). In the first test at Lord’s, England had the Sri Lankans fighting for their last wicket on the final day, with several potentially chances to win the test. The next week up at Headingly, the situation was flipped on its head, as James Anderson and Moeen Ali failed on the penultimate ball of the test to fight off the Sri Lankan attack. The knife-edge context of both tests does not come into the ‘no wins in last 10 tests’ statistic. In short, Cook has not actually performed as badly as captain as some make out. Despite throwing this latest test away against India, MS Dhoni was arguably the worse captain of the two; it was sheer idiocy that lost England the test, during a mad session of batting in the afternoon on the final day at Lord’s.

Too Few Cooks?

Even if Cook himself was to stand down, which he has said he will not do as long as he can keep his job (a statement welcomed by those in favour of some sort of stability), his replacement is nowhere to be seen. Part of the revamp after the winter loss to the Aussies included the drafting in of several good, young but inexperienced players (Gary Ballance, Moeen Ali, Sam Robson, Chris Jordan), decreasing the ‘sturdiness’ of the side but adding some flair, at least on paper anyway. Actually, all of the new imports have had some success, added to by Joe Root, who is as young as his new colleagues but has retained a place in the side for 18 months or so now. The point is, however, that the range of choice for a replacement captain has dramatically decreased over the last 12 months. Matt Prior was never a particularly inspiring option, and he has since taken his own break from test cricket to get his various injuries sorted (which in turn has brought another young face, Jos Buttler, to the side). Jonathon Trott’s departure during the winter Ashes has ruled him out; nobody seems particularly interested in Ian Bell; and, in the opinion of this website, Stuart Broad lacks the maturity to lead a test side. He has little experience other than short-format England captaincy. It is also not very fashionable to have bowlers captaining cricket teams; not many test sides have experimented with this, other than, perhaps, Shaun Pollock’s South Africa.

A few pundits have pointed to Joe Root to take over, but honestly, it could look as if the ECB was putting a 12 year old in charge. That is not to disrespect Root’s talent as a batsman, nor his future potential as a leader; but the lad is too young, with too little experience, and has had a bright but unstable start to his test career. Root has fluttered from numbers 6 to 2, down to three, and has now settled at 5, in an Ian Bell-style experiment that has not given the Yorkshireman a safe spot in the side. Should, therefore, he be given the chance at captaincy if he is yet to find a genuine and solid role? The answer is probably no. Some have compared the beginning of Root’s career to that of South African Graeme Smith, who was propelled into the captaincy role after just 8 tests at the age of 22, to some criticism. However, Smith, in both quantitative terms and more qualitative ones, is generally held as a fantastic leader – his record speaks for itself – and had the benefit of many in-form and experienced players (Shaun Pollock, Herschelle Gibbs, Gary Kirsten, AB De Villiers, Makhaya Ntini, Mark Boucher, Neil McKenzie, Jacques Kallis etc.) to back up his inexperience as captain. Root does not have this support. If Cook goes, and Prior, Trott and Pietersen remain out of action, Root will have very little to draw from in times of need.

Conclusions

It just doesn’t make sense, in several ways, to get rid of Cook. He may be out of form with the bat, and his team may be a bit of a shambles at the moment, but throwing him out as captain will do more harm than good to the stability of the England side. There are other issues that need prioritising. Firstly, a spinner needs to be found and inserted to relieve Moeen Ali of his frontline slow bowling duties. Simon Kerrigan has been around the scene for a few months, and others, such as Scott Borthwick, have made appearances, although admittedly no one has stood out. Secondly, the England selectors should overcome their fear of rotation for the sake of rotation. There are so many good county players in all positions, at a reasonably similar level, that could come in and out of the England side in the same way that the Australians changed their XI dramatically over the course of the 10 Ashes tests in 2013/January 2014. This could regularly refresh the many young faces to be found in the side. Without sounding at all Nottinghamshire-biased, four such players deserved of a chance are Alex Hales, James Taylor, Samit Patel and Harry Gurney, all of whom have decent records in the Championship, both this season and overall. Let’s not even get started on Chris Read, perhaps the most unfairly-treated county-international fringe player in modern cricketing history. Trent Bridge fans are currently benefiting (top of the County Championship, second in the T20) from the England selectors’ stubbornness, but the national side is quite obviously suffering from it.

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