After precisely one Test match, we’d seen all the shots (and non-shots) we were ever going to see from Alastair Cook.
You know them all, but let’s list them anyway. Maybe in 20 years time you’ll revisit this article having forgotten one of them.
This list goes some way towards explaining the relentless brilliance of Cook at his best. His was a brain uncluttered by options. Whereas an expansive batsman like Jos Buttler can at times seem paralysed by the avalanche of decisions he must make, Cook’s decisions pretty much made themselves. His was a method built for an autopilot.
Let’s grasp the videogame controller and play as Cook for a few minutes to see just how much he managed to streamline batting.
Full and wide of off stump. The leave.
Full and at the stumps. The forward defensive.
Full and anywhere around leg stump. The clip off the legs.
Short and wide. The cut.
Short and straight. The back foot defensive if it’s going to clip the bails, the pull if it’s slightly higher, the hook if it’s higher still, or you might duck if you feel it’s time to play it safe.
And honestly, that’s pretty much it. There were only two times Cook went beyond this. (1) When he had 150 and the ball was doing nothing, when he might treat himself to that punchy drive that was basically just a forward defensive with the brakes off. (2) When he tried to become a limited-overs cricketer and developed a very hideous slog to cow corner.
You can argue that this made him a predictable batsman, but there were plenty of times when what people predicted was a massive hundred.
Last week, writing about Alastair Cook, George Dobell briefly made the case that he maybe isn’t the easiest guy to open the batting with.
The gist of the argument is that Cook’s quite a passive batsman and “novice openers see the scoreboard going nowhere and bowlers allowed to settle into spells.”
That’s quite persuasive, but it strikes us that it cuts both ways. Maybe Alastair Cook doesn’t especially benefit from trying to do his thing alongside a load of nervous, uncertain pseudo-debutants. Maybe Alastair Cook doesn’t like the scoreboard going nowhere and bowlers allowed to settle into spells.
By this point we probably have to accept that Alastair Cook isn’t going to metamorphosise into Virender Sehwag, so there is no obvious solution to this. Not unless some new combative opener sashays into the side, brimming with a confidence that simply cannot be quashed.
Were that to happen, it would be great, because we do feel that were England to somehow come up with a half decent opening combination, a lot of the subsequent collapses would be nipped in the bud. Poor starts are a problem exacerbated by the nature of England’s middle-order, which almost exclusively comprises players you’d tend to think of as stroke-makers.
Yes, you could add someone more lumpen to the middle order but that seems to us to be akin to the placing of a bucket to address leaky pipework. Surely it’s far better to address the root problem and have, um, a steady flow of runs directly into the sink…
Essentially, good opening partnerships would set the scene for a bunch of batsmen who greatly benefit from having scenes set for them.
Cook and Keaton Jennings put on 54 in the first innings at Nottingham. This was the most sizeable opening partnership since Cook and Mark Stoneman put on 58 against the West Indies almost exactly a year ago.
We have to go back another full year for a start better than that one – 80 from Cook and Jennings against South Africa. The last 100-run opening partnership came in December 2016 against India (Cook and Jennings again).
They collapsed in most of those innings too, so maybe England are just out-and-out terrible at batting.
If we were to ask, ‘who has been your favourite England Test opener since Andrew Strauss retired?’ the answer is obvious. If you say anyone other than Alastair Cook, you are either (a) a contrarian hipster (b) not an England supporter or (c) mental.
That’s an easy one. A far more interesting question is who was your favourite opening partner for Alastair Cook after Andrew Strauss retired, because here we have a veritable smorgasbord of very similar options.
There were a bunch of others too. All-in-all, none of them were much good, which makes this a very challenging question to answer.
Who was YOUR favourite ineffective opening partner for Alastair Cook?
As in ‘returned’. He hasn’t got ankylosing spondylitis or anything.
Technically, he hasn’t been away. It just rather feels like he has. Like stumps and grass, you take for granted that Alastair Cook will at least be present for England Tests – that’s a given – however, you also expect to see an awful lot of him.
Cook is not a batsman for memorable cameos. He is a batsman who appropriates entire matches, claiming far more than his fair share of screen time. When in form, he has a tendency to monopolise play.
Christmas is a time of traditions and what could be more familiar than seeing Alastair Cook repeatedly cycle through the cut, the pull, the work to leg and the punch to off?
They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but we don’t feel contemptuous of our bottle opener or our central heating. When something does the job for which it is intended efficiently and without fuss, we’re perfectly happy with that.
So said Michael Vaughan after Cook had shelled an easy one early on. Where has he been looking? We’ve always felt like he drops a fair few – although maybe not by Vaughan’s own almost criminally low catching standards.
We wouldn’t go so far as to say that Cook’s a bad slip fielder. If we were called upon to deliver a one-word appraisal of his ability, we’d go with ‘serviceable’.
Maybe people have now seen him catch so many that they forget all the misses and assume he’s some sort of bucket-handed Flintoff figure. He’s not though – and it’s not just a feeling.
When Charles Davis counted up all the drops in Test cricket from 2000 to 2016, no non-wicketkeeper had dropped more than Cook. If plenty were perfectly forgiveable short leg snatches, the opener was nevertheless responsible for 62 non-catches in that time. Vaughan must have seen at least a couple of these. He was Cook’s captain in 18 Tests, after all.
Fortunately for Cook, England’s bowlers created a veritable barrage of opportunities on day one at Lord’s which allowed him to secure his 152nd and 153rd catches by the end of the day. (If you feel moved to compare that with the incomplete tally of Cook drops above, it’s worth knowing that around a quarter of chances are grassed in Test cricket.)
Ben Stokes, in particular, made even jaded old seen-it-alls leak oooohs, such was the swing he mustered. The misses were so near and so frequent that at one point even the umpire did a sharp intake of breath and a ‘how did that miss?’ face.
It was all rather glorious for England until the West Indies came out and did exactly the same thing only without dropping any.
Alastair Cook has said that the ECB “kind of let me out to dry a little bit” over Kevin Pietersen’s sacking and the ensuing brouhaha.
Being ‘let out to dry’ makes him sound like a cat who’s mistaken bubble bath foam for solid land and now needs the back door to be opened so that it can dry its soggy legs in the sun. But let’s fight back our natural inclination and not dwell on that minor slip of the tongue and instead focus on the more significant inaccuracy in that statement.
A little bit?
The ECB’s quasi-nepotistic public pronouncments seemed almost purpose-made to undermine Cook’s captaincy. As we wrote at the time, statements seemingly intended as props to support him became sticks with which the public and press beat him. This went on pretty much throughout his captaincy. Whatever his aptitude for captaincy, he is a very resilient man.
Giles Clarke’s comment that “he and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be” may have become infamous as some sort of crystallisation of the outdated prejudiced views at the ECB, but it also made Cook – through no fault of his own – the embodiment of that attitude.
If it was a garland, it was a rubber one that was instantly set on fire. Actual support, in any tangible, pressure-alleviating sense, was conspicuous by its absence. Intead, Cook was just foisted up there as a figurehead with a big ol’ target across his chops.
We could go on, but you’re busy people and it feels like a ‘less is more’ kind of a day. Should you be in need of further reading, here’s three more links that we may or may not have included had we gone on.
After four-and-a-half years and 59 Test matches, Alastair Cook has finally thought to himself: “Wait a minute, this is a rubbish a job and I don’t actually have to do it.”
It sometimes seems like every England captain’s career is simply a long, slow deduction that the honour and prestige don’t remotely outweigh all the millions of negatives. By the end of the India tour, Cook had the downbeat, dejected air of someone who had finally attained clarity.
After all this time, we’re still not entirely sure what particular qualities Alastair Cook brought to the job. He wasn’t an innovator or a rabble-rousing public speaker. He progressed from ineptitude with the press to speaking honestly and fairly informatively by the end, but it was never what you’d call a strength.
As we wrote a couple of months ago, with one obvious exception all of the players seemed to support him, which was a pretty decent achievement. A decreasingly competitive England side remained on an even keel, despite that creeping mediocrity. His team didn’t implode. Would Cook have won a lot more with a few better players or did he prevent the team from fulfilling its potential? Hard to say for definite, but personally we’re inclined towards generosity on this one. We might get a clearer idea when Joe Root takes over.
Concern that captaincy will somehow undermine Root’s batting seems peculiarly British being as we only have to look back as far as the present day to find examples of players who’ve improved on already high standards after taking over as leaders of Test teams (Virat Kohli and Steve Smith).
Admittedly, Cook himself was the opposite. But then the corollary of this is that he might now revert to being one of the most effective openers in Test history, which is the kind of thing that might well come in handy.
To Alastair Cook! [Somewhat bizarrely toasts him with a halloumi and tomato barmcake due to time of day and an uncharacteristic selection at the café just now.]
Only we’ll have to get something up about it pretty darn sharpish if he does. Our readers will doubtless have much to say about such a development.
Maybe we could publish some sort of ‘holding post’ instead, floating the possibility that Cook might stand down without actually stating that this has happened.
He’s Schrodinger’s England captain.
There are two ways of looking upon the England captaincy. You can see it as an important position where the incumbent can have a major positive influence on how the side performs, or you can see it as one more thing that could go horribly wrong.
Rated according to the former, Alastair Cook is not an especially good captain. He is diligent and well-meaning, but ultimately far too insipid to have any significant impact. It’s hard to imagine that he is the author of England’s strategy. He will have a say, but the blueprint is not his. As much as anything he is the guy who flicks the switches and pulls the levers and operates the machine.
Tactically, he has learned to be inoffensively nondescript.
That sounds like a fairly damning report card, but we’re equally inclined to adopt the second perspective expressed in the opening paragraph of this piece. Captaincy can go wrong. You can do a lot of damage as a captain.
Ironically, considering he doesn’t himself possess them, Alastair Cook is a safe pair of hands. Although his captaincy will forever be remembered for one massive world championship title-taking dressing room bust-up, the team does generally function fairly smoothly.
No-one’s lobbying to become the next captain. No-one’s hitting anyone else with a cricket bat. To momentarily indulge in cliché, everyone’s pulling in the same direction. More impressively, when they find they’re getting dragged in the opposite direction, they don’t stop pulling and start arguing, they just sort of press on, refusing to accept the apparent futility of their efforts. That’s actually quite an achievement.
Despite some real low points, England no longer seem liable to completely implode under Cook. That isn’t so bad. Given a bit more talent in a few key areas, nondescript captaincy could take the team a long way.
The answer to the question “should Alastair Cook continue as England captain?” may to some extent depend on which of those perspectives you are inclined to take. However, both views may well be irrelevant.
Alastair Cook has, of late, appeared completely fed up with his job. Getting battered on an away tour will do that to a man, but it’s quite possible the enthusiasm won’t gush back in when he gets home.
If that’s the case, he’ll correctly resign because a man who really, really cannot be arsed is not going to do an especially good job. Trust us on this.