Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Alastair Cook: a mixed legacy

Tuesday, 7 February 2017
It's a difficult thing to write about Alastair Cook's legacy as England captain, because it's difficult to see how his captaincy will be defined. The past few years have at times been a rollercoaster for England's test team, brilliant achievements marred by horrible lows. It's been a period of transition, a time marked by three main coaches, big retirements, and a new generation finding their feet; something reflected in his overall record. 59 tests in charge are the most by any England captain, and 24 wins put him joint-second on England's list; 22 losses put him first.

His biggest success as captain may be his first. He began his tenure in 2012 with a strong team, but one that was fractured after a series loss to South Africa, where events off the field drew more attention than those on it. And they were due to tour India. But Pietersen was reintegrated into the side, and despite going 1-0 down, England pulled through for a famous series victory. Cook led from the front, scoring three centuries in the course of the series, Pietersen made one of his special innings with 186 in Mumbai, and the spin twins of Swann and Panesar shared 37 wickets between them. It was the dream start.

More successes came, of course. There were home Ashes wins in 2013 and 2015, and the win in South Africa last winter another big achievement at a time when away wins have been like gold dust for test teams. But his captaincy will also be remembered for its miserable lows, the failure of the 2013/14 Ashes tour as likely to define him as his success the previous winter. A successful team disintegrated rapidly, and a fresh saga that saw Pietersen's permanent exile from the team would always linger - particularly with the bumbling ECB remarks that followed. And there was this winter, seeing a first test defeat to Bangladesh followed by a 4-0 series defeat in India. There was no way back from that.

Cook won't be remembered as a great captain, his record reflecting the inconsistency of this England side. He was best when leading the way with the bat, the matches when England could get on top early and dominate through big performances with the bat or ball. When the situation called for a plan B, his tactical nous was often found lacking and things would meander in the field. When England were under the cosh Cook's instinct would be for defence – defensive field placings, rotating the bowlers – and other teams would be happy to take advantage. Certainly India did this winter, and Sri Lanka's victory at Headingley in 2014 is another match that springs quickly to my mind.

I've never seen him as a tactical master, but he still earns my respect. His wealth of experience and his stubbornness and determination to succeed (at times a flaw and a virtue) have made him a figure that young players can look up to and respect in the dressing room. He has united a dressing room and created a positive atmosphere, and players have rarely wavered in support of their captain. He has been able to bridge the gap between the old and the new, to the point where it now feels like the right moment to stand down, players like Root and Stokes as the new potential captain and vice-captain now ready to lead the way. Progress under Cook has been stuttering, and his captaincy has been a part of the problem at times, but he's also been without a fixed opening partner throughout his tenure, and for the most part without a world-class spin bowler - two big parts of Strauss's reign. The team has often been in flux, and though he might not have been overly well-suited to the job, there wasn't necessarily a strong alternative.

Now feels like the right time for him to step down, and for the younger generation - Joe Root, in all probability - to step up. There will be the concerns about the captaincy affecting Root's form, particularly with him being a genuinely world class batsman, but it may also be the extra slice of responsibility that he needs. Time will tell how he will fare as captain, but the hope is there that he can build a team in the image of the younger, more aggressive players. With England's next test not until July, there will be plenty of time to prepare for the role. And at 32, Cook still has plenty to offer England still with the bat, being freed from the shackles captaincy so often provides. The team needs freshening up, a new approach after a dismal winter, but what remains is still a highly talented group of players - and Cook is among them.

So what is Cook's legacy? It's hard to say, and I don't really know where I stand on it. It may be a question better answered a few years later with the benefit of hindsight. Was he a good captain, was he a bad one, or just, a captain? Certainly he wasn't one to let his losses define him: determined to keep going even after humiliation in Australia; determined to fight whilst his form and captaincy was on the line in 2014; determined to earn redemption for those defeats. There were highs, there were lows, times when he was at fault, and times when he wasn't. Now it's the time for another man to lead.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The WBBL, the KSL, and the matter of television

Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Like many here in England, this winter I've been drawn to watching Twenty20 competitions happening on the other side of the world. Whilst the men's Big Bash League has drawn plenty of attention, and often been hailed as an ideal model for T20 competitions to follow, it's been the women's competition that has drawn me in more. The second year of the Women's Big Bash League may not have received a huge amount of publicity on these shores, but has still made plenty of waves throughout the game.

The first WBBL had already taken huge steps for women's cricket. It was the first T20 league of its kind with many of the world's best players featuring, and had the advantage of being able to piggyback upon the popular and established brands of the men's competition. Women received payment for playing domestic cricket, and it was being televised too; doing so well that more games were shown, and moved to Channel Ten's primary station. WBBL02 went even further. Games continued to be televised, and if not they were live-streamed on Facebook for the world to see - brilliant for me as someone, time differences allowing, wanted to see as much of the action live as I possibly could.

As an English cricket fan, it gave me cause to wonder. Whilst the first season of the ECB's big T20 competition, the Kia Super League, was a success, it featured no live television coverage at all. There are arguments for an against that of course, such as Sky's concern about the quality of the end product (something that didn't stop the WBBL in their first season), and issues relating to logistics and infrastructures (more understandable, particularly with the smaller grounds). But a big part of it was the ECB's deal with Sky - and it seemed if they didn't want to show it, then nobody could.

Progress has certainly been made on the television front for 2017, with finals day and several other matches to be broadcast by Sky - these coming as the first halves of double headers with the men's domestic competition. It's a positive step, though double headers shouldn't be seen as the long term option. But I'd still like to see something following Australia's model. In 2014 England streamed ODI matches against India on YouTube for free. I'm not an expert on the ECB's contract and terms with Sky, but if something like this (or via Facebook) is still possible then surely it would be a great opportunity for the KSL. And it would be live cricket that wasn't hidden behind a paywall, sadly a novelty in England over the past ten years.

Double headers might be a good ploy for now, but already the time is coming for women's cricket to stand up on its own. Certainly international games have been capable of standing on their own for a while now, with grounds such as Chelmsford and Hove being packed for T20 matches. It always feels somewhat disappointing then, in contrast, when double headed games with men's international's are played; and that atmosphere is diminished by larger venues going unfilled. Double headers bring the feeling of the women's match being a warm up act before the 'main' event, sold to people who are buying their tickets for men's matches and may not want to see the first game, or aren't able to make the time of the earlier match. The opposite is true also, with the higher ticket prices potentially putting off those who had only wanted to see the women's match. Women's cricket is not just the 'bonus' product any more, and there are enough people interested that it can be sold to.

But at the moment they come as a way of growing the game, a necessary concession to make for the games to be televised. And with television comes more exposure, and with exposure comes a greater accessibility and interest from fans and the media. The international game can stand on its own, but for a domestic competition it could provide an extra boost. Spectators who may just be buying their tickets for the men's game will have an extra opportunity to see some of the best players from England and the rest of the world, and many players will get a chance in front of the cameras for the first time. In the long term I'd like to see fewer and fewer double headers, but in the meantime they can provide their benefits - especially if, as seems the case, it offers the best path for the KSL to get that all-important television coverage. It will be the first time English women's domestic cricket has been broadcast on television, and that in itself is a positive step and something I'm very much looking forward to.
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