June 28, 2014

England and the age of denial

When a player like Alastair Cook fronts the press so often, spinning a contrived message is the only option, especially when vulnerable

If Alastair Cook thinks it's time to quit, he must do so with his head held high © Getty Images

Late on day four in Leeds, Mahela Jayawardene walked in to play the fourth session of the day. Of course, I am referring to the now-mandatory press conference, officiated by the fourth estate.

The Sri Lankan great was buoyant, defiant, softly spoken as always, and yet aggressive in his intent. He attacked Alastair Cook and England, virtually declaring the game over. He represented a smarting underdog about to create history. Sri Lanka had faced a bit of adversity and stick from England, and in emphatic style Mahela decided, while faced with thirsty journos, to deliver one more rousing knock.

The press conference has now become a part of every Test match day. It's a real treat if you are a journo to hear a player go off and attack someone. Remember the ugly tones from David Warner last November? One assumes it makes for a change from the normal spin that is pre-prepared and boringly delivered.

Mainly the fourth session is a time for the controlled, much-consulted-on public-relations spin, or the typical standard answers that are delivered day after day, match after match, by officials, captains, coaches and designated players.

These days the press conference is as common as lunch and tea during a Test match day. It's a silly game beyond the boundary. Yet unlike the play in the middle, which is adding to the history of the sport, the press conference, much like lunch, can be absolute contrived fodder. Or as Mahela cooked up, it can be just what the fourth estate is praying for. Apart from before and after the Test, why on earth, may I ask, would you need a press conference at all?

This over-indulgence is putting the players too often in a state where spinning a contrived message is the only option, especially when they are vulnerable. Take Cook, following the most extraordinary loss off the penultimate ball, who instead of offering deep insights about the state he was in after another stressful emotional week, slipped into filtered mode and provided the following almost predictable spiel:

"I have never quit on anything, always given my all, in every one of my 104 Tests. Sometimes I have done well, sometimes I haven't. It's the same situation here, and until someone tells me I am no longer captain, I am still here. I have got to work incredibly hard over the next ten days."

Whereas, if he didn't have to front the press so often and so fruitlessly, he might have been encouraged to say, "We have failed to produce the right result, end of story, and I, as the captain, am responsible for that. I need to get home and think what it is I am truly creating as captain, as it's slowly getting worse in achieving results, which are all that matter. Right now, at game's end, is not the right time to resign. But rest assured, I will return home and consider everything."

If Alastair gives himself up as cooked after a time for reflection, then give Joe Root the captaincy. Following his double-century and his continued improvement, Root is the very man to sow the seed for the long-term future

He might have gone on and said, "As I honestly displayed before this Test, I have things on my mind, and those distractions are influencing the way I am batting and leading. I have underestimated the last nine months and the effect they have had on my need to clear my mind, in order to play to my ability, and to lead this team in its hour of need. The next few days are vitally important for me to work out what is best for me and for the team. Good night, and no further questions please."

Instead, as he feels it is now part of the daily ritual and duty, he pored over the positives as they all do, and said he felt England had won eight days out of ten. All the while, the scribes in that room were probably thinking, "Alastair, you lost. Sri Lanka, led by a more inspiring leader, won the pressure moments, the important sessions, and with it the series. Oh, and your tactics on day four were up there with some of the worst ever. But we do appreciate all the extra copy you have provided."

On to the issue of the day. Quitting, resigning, stepping down, handing over are all the same thing no matter how you spin it. The only consideration is whether it's time to move aside for someone who has a clearer, more decisive vision, and if it is, then that clearly is the right thing to do. Why wait for it to get worse? Why wait to be sacked? There is absolutely no shame in standing down at all. There are dozens of examples throughout history when it is needed and has been done with honour.

It doesn't need to descend into the sort of tear-fest that closed Kim Hughes' rein. No, it can easily be done just the way Beefy did it on the balcony at Lord's, swiftly and with his head up, handing it over to the next one deemed to have a better feel for the moment, so he could get back to being the match-winner he was. Or recently, the way Andrew Strauss did it, knowing when his time was finally up. I'm not preaching without personal experience; I handed it over after only 16 Tests in charge, as the writing was on the wall. Stubbornness is not a worthy attribute.

With so much fronting up to the fourth estate, the overspin is getting in the way of identifying the real problem and finding the right answer. Trying to get through all these extra media sessions without giving too much away only creates the impression that too many players are in denial about the reality of the situation.

These are extraordinary times and therefore there are calls for drastic action. By next week, Cook should know what he must do. In that moment, he may well be happy to carry on. If so, hats off. But serious changes need to be made, otherwise a different opposition is not going to make one jot of difference.

Quite possibly, India might not be the best team for England to play against right now, for with a talented, spirited bunch, led by an inspired MS Dhoni, they are out to prove their own worth following a significant period of admiring a few true greats carrying the torch. India look ripe to unleash hell if England don't buck up quick.

If Alastair gives himself up as cooked after a time for reflection, then give Joe Root the captaincy. Following his double-century and his continued improvement, Root is the very man to sow the seed for the long-term future. It's bold and it's also a no-brainer. It worked for Graeme Smith and Stephen Fleming at a similar age and there is no reason why it won't work for Joe Root as well. It could be a welcome epiphany.

England, you are in a hole you aren't quite admitting to. Yet it's not due to the fine young, brave soldiers firing strongly in their early exchanges in the heat of the battle. Root, Robson, Ballance and Ali are showing resilience to the task. Continue that theme and promote Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes right now, replacing Prior and Jordan. In the meantime, Peter Moores must urge Cook to get forward and Bell to bat long, and Broad, Plunkett and Anderson to bowl five-over spells.

And let Moeen Ali provide much more of the real spin we prefer to enjoy.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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