June 25, 2014

How do you solve a problem like Alastair Cook?

Just give him four years at the helm and be done with it

"I think this is the face that Twitter expects for #Facepalm #FTW #winning #LOL" © PA Photos

If you read English newspapers you might have formed the impression that handsome batting superhero Alastair Cook is a bit of a disappointment as a leader of men. Headlines such as "Calamity Cook" (Times), "Captain Comedy" (Essex Bugle) and "Cook's Concatenation of Cricket Clangers Causes Cereal Crop Catastrophe" (Farmer's Weekly) suggest that his captaincy skills are not particularly highly rated in his home country.

It isn't just the experts in the press box who feel qualified to point out his failings. Waitresses at the ECB canteen snigger that he leaves the salt too square and fails to move the vinegar in short despite that fact that Ian Bell always has vinegar on his chips. His neighbours shake their heads at the predictable straight lines of his vegetable patch, an orthodox arrangement that the modern slug has no trouble penetrating.

Even the England team coach driver regularly takes to Twitter to criticise Cook's choice of driving music, although with hindsight, his decision to go with Radiohead's "No Suprises" as his rousing pre-Gabba anthem was rather ill-judged.

So everyone agrees Alastair is rubbish. But just how rubbish is he, exactly? We know, for instance, that Phil Tufnell was rubbish at batting and we can quantify exactly how rubbish he was to two decimal places. We know, from looking at the stats, that during the 1989 Ashes series, England's bowlers flung more pies than a steam-powered pie-flinging machine during the 1851 Great Exhibition of Pastry Propulsion.

This is one of the incidental beauties of cricket. You can put a number on everything, then you can crunch the numbers and argue about the patterns that the number crumbs make. But the only captaincy stats out there are wins and losses, which don't tell the whole story, since so much depends on the quality of the players you're lumbered with.

Cook is accused of not being adventurous enough. But how do we measure adventurousness? Could we use the Warne Scale Of Adventure, which runs from 0 (Boycott) through 100 (Indiana Jones) to the full 200 (General Custer)? What about the effectiveness of field settings? Maybe we should introduce the IT Botham Correlation, in which the satisfactoriness of field settings is related to the number of commentary grumbles per minute. And what about those all-important inspirational qualities? Perhaps Alastair could give a team talk to some laboratory mice wired up to monitor their adrenal responses?

In the absence of any real data, all we're left with are the subjective opinions of cricketers. And we all know not to trust the subjective opinions of cricketers. Take this recent quote from Ian Bell, for instance:

"There is absolutely no doubt that Alastair will continue as captain. I don't think the tactics were wrong. I don't think he could have done anything more."

Of course, what he really means is:

"For God's sake don't sack Alastair because I'm next in line and there's no way I want to be leading this bunch of nobodies. I mean, have you seen them bat? Seriously, this team stinks, and I should know. I swear, if you make me captain, I will cry. I mean it. I will just start sobbing right there in the dressing room. Do you want that on your conscience?"

With no reliable way of measuring a captain's ability, the sensible solution is to give them all four years, regardless of results: a fixed-term appointment, like the US President or the Pope or the Queen. You might not think the Queen is up to it anymore, you might be scathing about the Pope's cardinal-selection policy, but tough. You're stuck with them for the duration, so stop whining.

And the good news for England fans is that under the four-year captain rotation policy, you only have another two years, two months and four days of Alastair to go.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here