Alastair Cook, England’s last great red-ball duke, prepares for Ashes stage
Over to you, then, Alastair. And whatever you do, don’t kill the vibe eh? As England’s increasingly giddy early season love-in with New Zealand reached this week it was hard not to feel a little protective sympathy at the prospect of England’s Test captain getting his hands back on the team’s emotional thermostat.
It has after all been a curious few weeks for England’s cricketers, a process of flushing out and letting go and general unclenching that still feels a little unreal. For all the talk about new guys, new brands, exciting new brands of guys and so on, there has been a lurking suspicion throughout that at any moment some representative of The Real World is going to start rattling at the classroom door saying, boys, stop this at once. Open up. Untie Mr Farbrace. And for the last time put that exciting new brand of cricket away – you can have it back after school.
It was even tempting to see something mischievous in Eoin Morgan’s post-match interview at Old Trafford. “We’re all really enjoying each other’s company,” England’s non Test-playing captain announced, days before an Ashes series in which the majority of his backward-capped, hunk-of-the-month new brand of guys will have no involvement. One Direction have now left the building. Never mind though. Here comes 12 hours of atonal German chamber music.
These are certainly interesting times for who seems, for all the flux around him, a rather isolated figure now. There is nothing new in this. From their first day in the job all England cricket captains are engaged in a process of staving off the moment of their own inevitable departure. For Cook though, the problem is more nuanced than simply maintaining his own batting form, which is now back in the groove after some hard work on that pared back but still tangle-prone technique.
Cook does of course have a pretty terrible captaincy record these days, to the extent that should England take a decisive early hit in the Ashes it will surely become almost impossible for him to stay on. But beyond this he finds himself isolated by other, wider forces. As Graeme Swann noted recently, the Test captain has always been the most important player in English cricket, a role that bestows a kind of ambient head prefect-ship, good chaps with straight bats who can still act as a drop-in general across all forms and all-round chairman of the board.
And yet if England’s commitment to change – not to mention the hiring of a revered white-ball coach – points anywhere it is towards the unsustainable oddity of this state of affairs. As Test captain Cook is still in effect the most powerful cricketer in England, but this will surely change now. Why should the five-day captain have any more gravitas, any more say than those who manage an equally, or even more globally popular format of the game? What Cook faces here is the prospect of a very basic shifting of influence, an ancestral petering out. He is even in one sense the end of the line: English cricket’s last great red-ball duke.
Frankly it can’t come soon enough. Being Angry With Alastair Cook – over-promoted as a one day player; over-indulged as an arbiter in team politics – is already a kind of shared hobby on social media. Indeed Cook’s career since taking over as captain has in part been one long rancorous attempt to try and be a series of things he quite clearly has no real aptitude for at the very highest level: captain, one day opener, power broker, diplomat, media spokesman.
Let’s face it, there is only one story with Cook. He is unconditionally brilliant at opening the batting in Test matches. Whatever the surface, the bowling, the state of the game he is simply the same concentrated essence of Cook, a beautifully deep, still, untransferable talent that leaves him averaging in the mid-40s on every continent, and with a record that might have been even more relentlessly prolific if he had simply been cosseted, packed away and left to do the one thing at which he is unarguably a master.
More than that he would undoubtedly be more widely loved for what he is rather than assailed for what he isn’t, condemned as the man who shot KP, management stooge, the world’s most tedious mouther of platitudes in front of a board covered in adverts and all the rest.
With this in mind Cook surely deserves a moment of grace now. He may be an almost hilariously linear cricketer. He may have a rare gift for annoying eminent Australian ex-pros. Perhaps he should have been sacked already given his own lack of real captaincy smarts and the presence of an alluringly modern-looking all-format successor in Joe Root.
But there is still something beautifully doomed about his continuing presence as leader and frontman. The world may be dissolving into a cross-format farrago of transferable skills, five-dimensional cricketers and new brands of guy. But here comes the England captain marching along at the front of things like some cobwebbed earl still striding around Kensington, umbrella raised to the traffic, pince-nez askew, ears pricked for sound of approaching trolleybuses.
It is after all tribute to the sport’s endless textural variations that a batsman such as Cook can still arrange an entire A-list carer around his ability to leave the ball, to play no shot, to aggressively resist. Plus of course when they arrive there is a wonderful sense of trapped energy in his attacking strokes, the short-arm cut shot, reminiscent in style of an arthritic senior gamekeeper swatting midges from his ankles with a bamboo cane, or that delightfully unbound and liberating hook shot.
Cook will remain as a Test opener for as long as his appetite and form remain. As captain it is maybe fair to say he is in effect waving goodbye already, even as he ratchets up a century record it is possible, in altered times, that no Englishman will ever surpass. For now if the Ashes series is to be played out to the end this will probably involve Cook putting right what is currently a horrible record against Australia in England, his best innings in two home series when a dreadful spell by Mitchell Johnson in effect kept him in the team. Either way this is a time to simply enjoy him while you can, a last breath of the old, grand, agreeably ill-fitting past.