After nearly five years of highs and lows, and 59 matches in charge, opening batsman Alastair Cook has stepped down as England test captain. While most team sports have captains, it is hard to think of a sport in which the captain plays a more important role than in cricket. Traditionally, at least, the captain of a cricket team acts as tactician, man-manager and selector all while leading by example with the ball, bat, or in the case of a very few, both. These days, captains at the top level are assisted by coaches, selectors, and numerous others that make the job easier, but it still remains one of the hardest roles in sport. And in the coming weeks, the ECB will appoint the next man to join the likes of Mike Brearley, Len Hutton, and Peter May in writing “England test captain” on their résumé.
When Cook took on the role in 2012, the England test side was in turmoil. Star batsman Kevin Pietersen had been dropped from the side following an elongated dispute with senior players. This culminated in derogatory texts about captain Andrew Strauss sent to opposing players from his native South Africa, against whom the test team were playing. Strauss, who is currently Director of English Cricket at the ECB, was one of the most successful captains in modern English history, elevating the test side to best in the world, as well as winning both Ashes series which took place under his reign. That summer, however, was disappointing, with both his and the side’s form failing as they lost the number one spot to the South Africans as a result of a 2-0 series defeat, and Strauss retired following his 100th test.
These challenges were exacerbated by the fact that the team’s first series under Cook’s leadership was away in India, an opposition whom England had not beaten away from home in more than 20 years. In the face of all odds, however, Cook scored 562 runs at an average of 80.28 in the series as he led his team from the front to a 2-1 victory in one of the defining moments of his tenure. Key to the victory was Pietersen, who had been “re-integrated” into the side, and as the back-to-back Ashes series of 2013 (a quirk of scheduling resulting from the timing of the 2015 World Cup) loomed, all appeared well in the England camp.
England duly won the home leg 3-0 against a weak Australian side, but when Cook led his side down under, his happiness, to quote a diminutive Lannister, turned to ash in his mouth. They left Australia chastised following a 5-0 whitewash, and, having lost batsman Jonathan Trott to mental illness and spinner Graeme Swann to retirement during the series, Cook was left without coach Andy Flower and Pietersen, who was unceremoniously dumped from the side.
A difficult 2014 followed, as the now transitional test side fell to defeat at home to Sri Lanka, with Jimmy Anderson breaking down into tears following his second-last ball dismissal to lose the pivotal match at Headingley. There was light at the end of the tunnel, as despite an ignominious defeat at Lord’s, England beat India 2-1. Cook’s form, however, was poor during that summer, and for the first time his position was seriously under question.
In spite of this, the public were behind him. In a recent interview with BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew, he said of the third test at Southampton, in which he scored 95 in the first innings, “When you’re really doubting yourself, to walk out there on that first day was really special for me. It was almost spine-tingling. It surprised me, to have that warmth of reception. A lot of people walked up to me in the street, saying I was the right man to drive it forward.”
The same tenacity that allowed Cook to push through the difficult start to his captaincy, along with some encouragement from his wife Alice, meant that, despite the naysayers in the press, he continued as captain into 2015.
That year the Ashes were regained at home in the summer to the tune of 3-2, with Cook describing the triumph as “incredibly emotive, because of what [he] had been through for the last year or so, and what the team had been through.” The winter saw a 2-1 away victory over world number one ranked side South Africa.
The past 12 months saw a 2-0 victory at home against a Sri Lanka team hopelessly out of their depth in English conditions, and a disappointing 2-2 draw with a mercurial Pakistan outfit, a series best remembered for the push-ups performed in front of the famous Lord’s pavilion by the victorious Pakistanis. A 1-1 draw in Bangladesh and the weak 4-0 loss in India were the straws that broke the camel’s back, and Cook stands down having been “drained” by the captaincy, according to his predecessor Strauss.
While there aren’t many who would say that Cook was the greatest captain England has ever seen, there aren’t many who would say he was the worst either. His tenure has been characterised by triumphal victories alongside crushing defeats. A quiet, private individual, Cook was never a natural captain. His natural stubbornness was a boon to his role at the top of the order. His leadership was marked by an unwillingness to move away from the tactics of attrition that dominated during Strauss’ captaincy, and this showed at times when more inventive methods were needed to get a result.
Overall, I think Cook made the best of the lot he was given. He has successfully led the team through the transition away from the side which won the 2010/11 Ashes and the times when the team, and Cook, may not have performed at their best are only as a result of the almost complete change in personnel in his tenure. Of the 10 other men who played in his first match as captain, only Stuart Broad played in his final match as captain.
Who will succeed him? The obvious candidate, and by far the most likely, is Joe Root. He has served as vice-captain for the last couple of years, and has been described by close friend Gary Ballance as a “natural born leader.” The only other immediately possible option is bowler Stuart Broad. His case is being pushed by Graeme Swann, who has said that “we should leave Joe Root to be the best batsman this country has ever produced, which he would be without the burden of being the captain.” However, this theory falls down on further evidence. Australia’s Steve Smith, India’s Virat Kohli, and New Zealand’s Kane Williamson, Root’s equals at the top of world cricket, are all captains of their respective nations.
Although Cook may be stepping down as captain, his career with England is not over by a long stretch. One might assume he has at least four or five years, and possibly even longer, before age terminates his career. In this time, it is possible that Cook will add to his current tally of 11,057 test runs to surpass Sachin Tendulkar’s record of 15,921. Should he do so, he would surely go down as one of England’s greatest test batsmen, and certainly, England’s greatest opener.