Alastair Cook has made the decision to step down as England’s Test captain. The only surprise in that announcement was that it took seven weeks from the end of England’s battering in the Test series in India for him to make the call.
And it appears that it was Cook that decided, not the England management. He was still very much the master of his own destiny despite the heavy defeat in India. The coaches and selectors’ admiration for Cook had not dimmed, even if his own desire to do the job was fading. As a weary looking Cook spoke to the press after England suffered four successive defeats in India you couldn’t help but think he had lost the will to continue.
Cook has led England in 59 Tests, winning 24, losing 22 and drawing 13. No one has captained England more often and only Michael Vaughan, who was in charge for 26 victories, has won more matches as skipper. Cook has 4,844 runs as England’s captain, more than 1,000 better than his nearest rival. He has been in charge for two Ashes wins, a series victory in South Africa and a win over India away from home.
He has been, from a statistical point of view, one of England’s finest leaders. Still, his legacy will be one that divides people. To say that Cook’s captaincy has been prosaic and uninspired for much of his career would be an understatement. The times when his captaincy has faltered have been far more regular than when he has looked inspired. He has been a lead from the front, by the numbers sort of captain. That in itself is no bad thing, but when things have gone wrong he hasn’t had those moments of glory to remember that could have eased some of the fierce criticism that he has faced.
Cook took over the captaincy in 2012, in the wake of the Kevin Pietersen texting scandal when it emerged that the South African-born England batsman had been exchanging messages with the South African team. At the time there was a Twitter parody account that was being run by a friend of Stuart Broad’s and the suggestion was that someone inside the England dressing room was helping craft tweets mocking him. Things were a mess, and to Cook’s credit, he played a part in Pietersen’s “reintegration” into the team.
In many ways Pietersen has been at the forefront of Cook’s captaincy for as long as he has been in charge. In the early part of his stint in the job there was calls for Pietersen’s recall to the side. When Pietersen did make a come back he was instrumental in Cook’s finest triumph, that Test series win in India.
Then there was the awful period that followed the 5-0 series loss in Australia in 2013/14. England had a choice it seemed, Pietersen or Cook. They decided to back their captain who was younger and more central to their plans going forward. Once they had decided it was one or the other, it was the logical thing to do, but the original decision and the way it was handled was a dumpster fire and everything the ECB did to dampen the flames was like a can of gasoline.
There are a small, yet passionate, section of England cricket fans that have never forgiven the ECB for the way that was handled, with professional troll Piers Morgan as their figurehead. Rightly or wrongly, Cook’s captaincy will always be linked to the dreadful 18 months that followed the sacking of Pietersen. The ECB statement that referred to people “outside cricket” criticising the team, the then ECB chairman Giles Clarke saying that Cook was from the “right sort of family”, the refusal to find any fault in Cook while laying all the blame at Pietersen’s feet. All of it left a sour taste in the mouth. Even though Cook had little to do with any of it, he was seen as the figurehead for the status quo.
Cook was still the one-day captain at that point, and he eventually lost that job in the run up to the 2015 World Cup, a tournament that was so dreadful that it saw the departure of Paul Downton as England’s Managing Director and Peter Moores as England’s coach. As everything around him was sackcloth and ashes, Cook stayed as captain of the Test team, and winning the 2015 Ashes in England allowed him a redemption of sorts.
Cook was flying high when England won in South Africa last winter, and was still very much in charge when England played Sri Lanka and Pakistan last summer. But come the India tour and the fissures in his leadership were there for all to see. Selections were jumbled and Cook was seemingly unsure of which spinners to back and which fields to set for them as India dismantled his side four Tests in a row.
The time had come for someone else to have a go at doing the job, but Cook deserves enormous credit for what he has achieved as a captain and as a batsman. Hopefully, his journey towards the very top of the Test run-scoring charts is given a boost by this decision. He is still, undoubtedly, England’s finest opener. The continuing search to replace Andrew Strauss in the side shows his importance, and that has not diminished with his decision to walk away from the captaincy. Now he has nothing to worry about other than scoring Test runs for England. As much as he will be disappointed to leave a captaincy role he clearly loved, there must be some comfort to be found in that.
Much that people will find at fault with Cook’s time in charge has not been his doing, and whenever someone that has given so much to our sport steps down from a captaincy role, it is important to remember the good times. But with Cook you worry that in the future when his time as leader of England is discussed, all anyone will mention is Kevin Pietersen.