With the retiring of Alastair Cook, Guy Williams has a look at the record-breaking England cricketer
Alastair Cook, the England Test captain, resigned from his role last week after four years in charge. Although he has said that he wishes to continue playing for the foreseeable future, it is in many ways the end of an era. This may seem like an overstatement. When Rachel moves out of Monica’s apartment in Friends, Monica calls it ‘the end of an era’. The two debate the meaning of ‘era’. Rachel thinks that six years is too short a time to be called as such. Monica, on the other hand, takes a broader view.
For her, an era is not defined according to a specific length of time but rather a ‘significant period’ of time. In the latter sense, then, an era’s definition takes on a subjective dimension: if the period in question was significant in some way, perhaps emotionally significant, it may be deemed an ‘era’.
Under this broad definition, Alastair Cook’s captaincy tenure was, in hindsight, an era. It was enormously significant. The bare facts are that he captained England in 59 Tests, a national record, and of those he won 24, the joint-second highest number after Michael Vaughan (his 22 defeats as captain were also a national record). In 2012, he became the first captain since David Gower in the 1980s to win a series in India; he triumphed in two home Ashes series wins in 2013 and 2015; and in 2016 won in South Africa, the then top-ranked team in the world. These are all mighty achievements.
Over and above his successes, however, Cook’s era will be remembered more for the groundwork he laid in preparing the next generation of England cricketers. Cook’s predecessor as captain, Andrew Strauss, enjoyed an England team at the peak of its powers. James Anderson, Ian Bell, Matt Prior, Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen were either approaching or passing the age of 30, the prime of a cricketer’s career. When Strauss’ team achieved the top rank in 2011, these players were veterans and had the habit of winning. By the time Cook became captain in 2012, however, this ageing team was beginning to creak. It won in India, but fell apart spectacularly the following year. A fresh start was needed.
Under Cook’s captaincy, many players were introduced. A fair number of these will enjoy long careers, and one or two may even become England, and perhaps international, greats. Haseeb Hameed, Keaton Jennings, Jonny Bairstow and Mark Wood have serious potential. Meanwhile Joe Root (the probable new captain) and Ben Stokes are already world class players. What’s more, these men are all in their early to mid-twenties and are likely to be around for a long time. It is possible that only James Anderson, who is 34, and Cook himself, 32, will retire at some point in the next few years. This allows the next captain to build the team after his own fashion.
If Cook had to contend with several powerful personalities when he first took the job, the next captain has young players whose only desire is to win cricket matches. The England team of today has an ebullient, carefree attitude which may be down to its youth. But it is also explained by Cook’s desire to revolutionise its style from dour but relentless to entertaining but lovably naïve. There is an honesty around English cricket which cannot but be celebrated.
Much of this fresh attitude is down to Cook himself, an utterly decent man. Andrew Flintoff, the former England all-rounder, once said: “When my daughter grows up, if she brought a bloke like Alastair Cook home, I’d high five the wife.” Off the pitch, Alastair Cook is endearingly old school. He is not on social media and spends his down time working on the family farm in Essex. Like the ancient Roman Cincinnatus, who was called from his plough to defend Rome from attack, Cook returns to the farm when off-duty.
It keeps him grounded, he says: “I like perspective and the farm gives you that. Whatever else, come rain or shine, the farmers meet for a beer at the local on a Friday evening. It signs off the week in a communal way that says we take care of our own.” As captain, Cook was brilliant at ‘taking care of his own’. Keaton Jennings, who debuted against India in December, said recently that “Cookie was brilliant for me: he was very welcoming, warm, friendly, I suppose caring, in terms of being very aware when I came into the tour of the need to make me feel part of the group immediately.”
Cook’s personal qualities endeared him to the public and his teammates. He was not a tactical genius like a Michael Vaughan, nor as inspirational as Andrew Strauss. But his integrity, honesty and sense of duty was unrivalled by previous captains. When he returns to the playing ranks, a veteran among young guns, these qualities will continue to command respect as both the mark of an old era and the beginning of a new one.