COOK STEPS DOWN AS ENGLAND CAPTAIN AFTER 59 TESTS
Editor Simon Hughes spoke to Alastair Cook ahead of England's winter tour...
In captaincy terms Alastair Cook’s life has come full circle. He began his official tenure as England captain in India, and, barring unexpected victory in the current series, he will finish it in India. He has completed the circuit, leading his country against every other apart from Zimbabwe, done all the tours, never missed a match, toasted great triumph and tasted bitter defeat and now been in charge for a record 55 Tests. As he sits atop the list of England captains with a great sense of pride but absolutely no conceit, he covets the day when he is back in the ranks.
“It makes me feel very satisfied that I’ve been able to do it for a long period of time and I’ve had a really good crack at it,” he says. “There’ve been some bloody tough moments and some amazing moments and you can enjoy that success that little bit more because of what you go through every single day as England captain. Deep down, I don’t know how much longer I am going to carry on. It could be two months; it could be a year. I do look forward to the day when hopefully I can play a Test match as just a batter, there’s no doubt about that. If that happens I am going to really enjoy standing at first slip and being the bloke who makes suggestions to whoever’s in charge and not being the bloke who has to make the final decision.”
Cook is a pragmatic man and logically the end of the India series would be the ideal time to step down. There is no more Test cricket until next July, giving his successor, Joe Root, ample time to prepare for the job, and seven matches at home to bed in before heading off to Australia for the Ashes. It is reassuring to know he is keen to bat on. England need his runs more than ever. And he is still only 31.
Despite his longevity Cook is not, in one sense, a brilliant captain. On the field he is somewhat detached, lacking the tactical acumen of a Mike Brearley or a Michael Vaughan. He is more passive than proactive, occasionally irking commentators and supporters, though he has improved over time. His primary asset as a batsman – his ability to remain in his own bubble, to disengage himself from the situation and relentlessly chisel out runs in his own unflappable way – is perhaps a disadvantage as a captain.
But he has become a fine leader of men because of the example he sets. No one practices or trains harder. He runs and works out every day and still no one beats him over 5km. Having acclimatised with a week in Bangladesh in early October he returned home briefly for the birth of his second child but still regularly drove to Lord’s at 7am for a two-hour session with his batting coach Gary Palmer. He is unstinting in his quest for batting perfection. Others, like Joe Root and Ben Stokes, have followed his lead.
After the implosion of the disastrous last Ashes tour he has re-established trust, respect and unity – as well as won back the Ashes – and encouraged openness and collective responsibility. His influences have been subtle but effective, like initiating a 30-minute delay in the handing back of players’ phones at the end of a day’s play so that they could reflect on what had happened together rather than dive off into their own social media worlds.
“One thing I’m very keen on is to get some old-school values about the dressing room in place. Sitting around having a beer at the end of the day’s play, just the players, is absolutely vital. Not just to chat about the game but its when little things come out. The dressing room is such a special environment.”
Another noticeable trait is his honorable demeanour on the field, never questioning an umpire’s decision – except with a legitimate review – or being drawn into confrontation with an opponent. At the end of a session he ensures the team respectfully allow the opposition batsmen to cross the boundary rope first, even if England have been panned all around the park.
“It’s another of my little traditions which I think should stay in cricket. It’s how I’ve been brought up in club and even schoolboy cricket. Although I was desperate for the toilet the other day in Dhaka – I’m not a camel! – so I didn’t do it. But in the modern world when everything is changing so quickly I am still old school in not being on Twitter and Facebook and you’ve got to hold on to a few of those things.” The team that he has established comprises decent and approachable blokes. There have been no off-field incidents.
He agrees his personality inhibited his captaincy early on. “One of my strengths as a player was that ruthless determination with my batting and my progress to play for England through the age groups and Essex. I was very stubborn. I knew how I wanted to play and where I wanted to go. You listen to people but you take only very small snippets. I was the same in my first two years as captain. Gradually realising that it’s not the way to do it was quite eye-opening. It was actually a relief finding out after that Sri Lanka and India series [in 2014] that I can’t carry on like that. I realised I had to get more help and talk to the guys who watch cricket. You only have to look around on the morning of a game in England at the amount of experience – ex-captains, ex-players who have watched a lot of cricket – to appreciate how much knowledge is available.”
An encounter with Vaughan, one of his chief critics during the turbulent summer of 2014, was the catalyst. “I was in the hotel gym in the West Indies [in 2015] and Michael was there. He was the England captain when I first played [although injured when Cook made his debut] and we always got on really well. And in the gym that day we just didn’t speak to each other. We kept looking over and it was very awkward. I picked up the phone to him as soon as I got home and said, ‘look we can’t carry on like this, can we have dinner?’”
Without hesitation, Vaughan said ‘I’ll be there tomorrow’. Cook picked him up from Milton Keynes station and they spent virtually an entire day at the local pub talking leadership and tactics. “That was the defining moment,” Cook says. “It gave me the confidence to ask loads of different people for their opinions.” And he does so, too, willingly, even quizzing me for an assessment of a Lord’s pitch.
The events of 2014 would have claimed lesser men. Having been thumped 5-0 in Australia and lost the one-day series 4-1, the team unravelled and lost a home Test series to Sri Lanka. Cook was being pilloried on social media, Piers Morgan was labelling him a “weasel” to his 3m Twitter followers, and he couldn’t get a run. Having kids helped him cope.
“What happened in that year was a culmination of a lot of things. We weren’t playing as a team and the KP thing was still rumbling on and for the only time I really struggled as a batter as well as failing to win matches. It was the end of the fourth day against Sri Lanka at Headingley [England were 57 for 5, chasing 350] and I was watching TV in the hotel and I’ve got a pic of me holding four-month-old Elsie. I could not have been feeling any worse as a captain or a cricketer that day and yet I still had a smile on my face. The family came at the right time to keep everything in perspective.”
Having a life outside the game helps. Last summer, having dinner during the Durham Test, Cook had Elsie on his knee and talked effusively about organic farming and the countryside in general, accompanied by his wife Alice and three farming friends from Bedfordshire. He has no trace of ego, and cricket was barely mentioned.
Many England captains have looked pretty careworn towards the end of their reign: the brow more furrowed, the hair receding. Cook is not a fretter. “Of course, captaincy can be stressful. Oddly it seems to affect me more when we are doing well. During those Ashes Tests at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge [in 2015] I barely got any sleep. Because we had done so well on the first day I was more worried overnight about cocking it up. That second night at Trent Bridge when they were 100 behind us and we had three wickets to go I knew we could win the Ashes next day. If I had two hours sleep that night I was lucky. But say the fourth night of that recent match in Chittagong [Bangladesh needed 33 to win and England two wickets] I slept pretty well. Maybe because I had just had a new baby and then had left immediately to go on tour – things in life seemed rather more important than whether they got the runs or didn’t.”
Whatever you may think about Cook’s tactical nous, his captaincy record is excellent. An overall win ratio of 44 per cent is good; two home Ashes wins is impressive; beating South Africa and India away is outstanding. Winning the 2012/13 series in India 2-1 after losing the first Test is arguably a greater achievement than Strauss seizing the Ashes in Australia in 2010/11. And all the while he has averaged 47 (slightly better than his overall Test average) underlining his ability to shut out extraneous influences.
“I’ve had a lot of good people around me,” he says. “Andy Flower, Peter Moores, Trevor, Farbie, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Andrew Strauss. Guys who I’ve relied on a lot and they’ve backed me 100 per cent even through the real dark moments. Without that I wouldn’t be still captaining England now.
“I am especially proud of seeing some young players coming in and establishing themselves as players. I don’t want much credit for Ben Stokes, but I’ve captained a bit of him. Look, 99 per cent is down to him and his hard work, but maybe there’s one per cent which is something I’ve done which has helped him and it’s been special to watch him and Rooty develop. That [ODI] hundred Stokes made [at Dhaka] and that 85 he got the other day, I genuinely didn’t think he had that in him. Nothing will surprise me about what he does now. I think he’s got a huge leadership role to play in English cricket. Him, Root and Jos Buttler are the people who are going to lead England forward.”
Any advice to his successor? “One: have someone on your side away from the game who you can run ideas past. And two: be open to people giving you ideas, the media for example. Ex-players see the game from the detachment of the media centre and there’s a lot of expertise there. It’s important to use that help.”
Perhaps they can assist with this final challenge – beating a rejuvenated and hungry India in their own backyard. But, win or lose, Alastair Cook has created a team in his own image – determined, decent and in it for the long haul. And after the turmoil of recent years, we should be eternally grateful for that.