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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • adeel on July 1, 2014, 1:52 GMT

    i agree. cook should step down and 'get back to basics' as the tug of waugh would say !

    eng need to let prior go as he has been given ample chances. root may just be the captain they require, but will his baby face demand the respect a captain requires?? guys like graeme smith, stephen fleming were towering figures. they demanded respect from their physical attributes as well as personality. so root i don't think is the answer. bell is another candidate but same issue as root. too soft a personality. come to think of it cook himself falls in that category.

    they could go back to KP if they are smart..ooops ...there is said the KP word !

  • Shabbir on June 30, 2014, 3:59 GMT

    I disagree with Martin on throwing the captaincy to Joe Root who has not yet demonstrated any leadership influence on the field, and tends to struggle to maintain the consistency with his footwork and timing. The thing I appreciate about him though is his resilience against being dropped off from the squad - which shows he needs to purely focus on his own game and learn how to perform under pressure. Any extra burden will wear him down, let alone captaincy. Cook, Bell and Root are gentle in nature, all extremely likable people, but generally not proven as good "influencers" on the field i.e. being able to bring the best from own self and/or others under pressure and change the fortunes of games in their team's favour more often than not. If ECB continues with Cook any further, or replaces him with either Bell or Root, then their mistakes will pile up even more, and will rise up to the monumental proportion.

  • Steven on June 30, 2014, 3:25 GMT

    Yea that's England issue no obvious candidate to replace cook as captain but tis almost at the point where anyone is worth ago cos the tactics and leadership ain't going to better under cooks captaincy even though they should beat India if that happens that should hide or paper over the cracks and problems with cooks captaincy they will still be there when they head away over the English winter but I guarantee that's what will happen if they beat India Cook will say told u I'm the man for the job we r back on track now which we all know will be totally rubbish

  • Dummy4 on June 30, 2014, 2:48 GMT

    I am reminded of Campus time slogans written on doors of residential quarters mostly of final year students cramming for the exam..... Get out before you get kicked out If you have nothing to do don't do it here Thanks for going

  • Tom on June 29, 2014, 23:50 GMT

    It seems to me there is something poisonous about the England captaincy - and the England captaincy moreso than others. The story is always the same: the obvious candidate, usually the best batsman, is appointed, there is an initial period of success, followed by a prolonged trough in the captain's form leading to people questioning their place in the side, gradual diminution of morale, and ultimately an ignominious end driven by the media. It happened to characters as disparate as Hussain, Vaughan, Flintoff, Strauss, now it's happening to Cook and it would have happened to Pietersen if he hadn't been sacked. Every captain this century to have served any sort of time in the job. I don't see why it won't repeat itself with Joe Root or Ian Bell or Stuart Broad or whoever was appointed to take Cook's place.

    It seems there's a problem with the job, or the perception of the job, or something, rather than with any particular individual captain.

  • Arvind on June 29, 2014, 16:31 GMT

    Why does everyone panic so much, when the end of England's miseries is just round the corner? The Indians have a long tradition of bringing struggling players back in form, and helping them extend their careers from the verge of being dropped. How often do you see a team try to SAVE a Test match after setting a target of 458, and then almost LOSE the game?

    Keep calm, and have faith in the Indians. Just a couple of months from now, India would have lost 0-5, handed Cook, Bell, etc. one or two hundreds each, and maybe a few double and triple hundreds, given away at least a five-for to each of England's main bowlers and maybe to some part timers as well.

    Then everyone would go head over heels praising England as the best team in the history of the universe, Cook as the next best batsman after Bradman, and so on. Long story short, don't panic as long as Indians are here to save the day.

  • Ramana on June 29, 2014, 14:20 GMT

    "India look ripe to unleash hell" ?? wow, where did that come from Martin ? India is hardly in a position to unleash anything. With the kind of bowling attack India has, a 5 Test Series is at least 2 too many. The batsmen may stl do well, but there is very little likelihood of India winning the series. Cook shud hang on, there is every chance that he wl regain form and confidence, playing Indian bowling.

  • Trevor on June 29, 2014, 13:50 GMT

    Excellent article Martin, as we come to expect from you. It's a great shame that there are so many apologists for Cook and English Cricket in general. Just watched Cricket Writers on TV and it was much of the same. All trying to find positives without being really honest about the negatives. A decisive captain would not have let SL get back into such a strong position - Cook virtually gave up on day 4. The problem England have is that there is no obvious replacement, but I would suggest giving Broad a go, if his body is up to it. He is at least aggressive and not afraid to make decisions. Despite losing, he has done a reasonable job with the T20 side. This would give time to groom someone like Root for the job in the longer term. Perhaps without the captaincy Cook might regain his batting form. I think the comparison between Beefy and MC, compared to Cook is a good one. Both knew when to leave. Thanks again for a refreshing article.

  • Sinhhalaya on June 29, 2014, 10:39 GMT

    With all due respect, MD Crowe, you are talking 1990's language. Mahela's intervention was contrived, engineered and designed to put the wind up Eng's last 5 batters. It almost didn't work but eventually it did. Cricket is now inextricably linked with media, betting (official and less so), and all the accoutrements of western social culture. See it in that context, and you also may have an epiphany. I'd bet MSD and India would salivate at the prospect of a Root-led Eng side. Weepy boy Anderson has forever lost his edge as a bowler. Broad is average right now. Plunkett, Finn and any other county bowler could do as well or better. Dobell like Confucius say: the doorbell is ringing for Moeen. Go well, son!

  • alfred on June 29, 2014, 10:37 GMT

    good article.. spot on, except root doesn't strike me as being controlled enough just yet, if at all, to be captain. he seemed disturbed when angelo and co had a go at him on the final day, eventually losing his wicket. I would rather see broad take over for a while until a long term captain puts his hand up. at least this would give cook a chance to do what he does best.. score runs at the top of the order. broad is also naturally a more aggressive character, and I think England could use some proper aggression, especially with field placing, declarations, and overall attitude.

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