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.

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