Simon Barnes

Cook and the question of loyalty in sport

He served the purpose of being the hero to Pietersen's antihero, but given his appalling one-day form, is it time to be disloyal and get rid of him?

Simon Barnes
Simon Barnes
Alastair Cook jogs in to the pitch, England v India, 4th ODI, Edgbaston, September 2, 2014

If England want to reach the World Cup quarter-finals, they are more likely to do it without Cook, but dropping him would be disloyal  •  Getty Images

Loyalty is seen as one of sport's cardinal virtues - even though calculated disloyalty is sometimes a shatteringly effective tactic. Take Jimmy Greaves. A great footballer, but the England manager Alf Ramsey showed him no loyalty and dropped him in the course of the World Cup of 1966, preferring Geoff Hurst. Hurst scored a hat-trick in the final, Greaves became an alcoholic.
Yet there are times when loyalty counts. During that same tournament, so dear to the English mind, there were calls from British politicians to drop Nobby Stiles because of his "dirty" play - and people in the Football Association thought they had a point. But Ramsey said he'd resign if ordered to drop Stiles. Stiles stayed, was destructive and brilliant, and England won the tournament.
Loyalty, then, is an equivocal thing, in sport as in anything else. Loyalty isn't a virtue plain and simple: it depends on what - and whom - you are loyal to. Liverpool Football Club made a great show of their loyalty to their forward Luis Suarez when he was accused of racism. Suarez was found guilty and Liverpool's loyalty looked like self-serving parochialism.
Indian cricket remained loyal to Sachin Tendulkar and indulged him right to the end. Would it have been wiser, kinder, more dignified to have moved him on while he had that gloriously imperfect - and Bradmanesque - 99 international centuries to his name? Instead of waiting until he had scored his 100th, inevitably in a losing cause against Bangladesh? In the last couple of seasons Tendulkar lost some of his poetry.
This year English cricket has been all about loyalty. I'm not saying this as a fanciful observer: loyalty was the agenda set by those who run the English game. It's as if they had determined that cricket should become a morality play, one in which the good end happily and the bad unhappily.
But they haven't. Good and bad look equally unhappy.
Perhaps they thought that loyalty was a simple issue. If so, they have been sadly disabused. Poor old Alastair Cook: it was never his ambition to be a symbol of righteousness. He just wanted to play cricket and score runs, and for a while he was immensely good at it.
Be very careful before you get moral in public. Especially in sport. Runs are not the reward for good behaviour. Nasty men can also score centuries
But they forced him into the role of Captain Loyal: compare and contrast with Kevin Pietersen, Batsman Vile. Pietersen was sacked for various crimes of disloyalty, despite being England's top scorer in their disastrous tour of Australia last winter.
They couldn't just drop him: they wanted Pietersen publicly disgraced. Accordingly, they staked everything on Cook as Pietersen's antithesis: hero to Pietersen's antihero; quiet, composed and decent where Pietersen is loud, rude and self-advertising; generous and team-minded where Pietersen is self-obsessed; above all loyal where Pietersen is disloyal.
A lot of that is a pretty good fit, but this is sport, not politics, and in sport you can't get by on bluster and good intentions. Cook is a batsman and a batsman needs runs. Cook at his best is one of the most certain players who ever took guard. But the traumas of the winter made that certainty a thing of shreds and patches.
He began to rebuild his life post Ashes, post KP. He was greatly helped by India's feeble performance in last summer's Test series, but now, as cricket gets ready for the World Cup early next year, the question of loyalty crops up once again.
For Cook is having a disastrous series against Sri Lanka. England haven't a clue about 50-over cricket, never have; beneath their dignity, I suppose. Cook's attempts to be a one-day batsman mix Dad-dancing embarrassment with Candide-like naiveté. And he has scored no runs.
So England are in a difficult situation. When does it become appropriate to be disloyal to Captain Loyal? Ex-players are saying it's time he was dropped as both captain and player from the one-day team. The most intriguing argument, from the Guardian's Mike Selvey, is that his scrappy one-day batting has removed the certainty from his Test match play.
The irrefragable fact is that Cook is not good enough as either batsman or captain in the 50-over game. If England want to put on a respectable show at the World Cup - i.e. reach the quarter-finals - they are more likely to do it without Cook. But dropping him would be rather disloyal, and this is a team that is flamboyantly built on loyalty.
Naturally the players are showing public loyalty to Cook: strong man, difficult patch, got the character to pull through etc etc. But that's their job; they are not going to say: Well, Cookie's struggling, I think I ought to do the job instead.
In sport, as in politics, looking loyal is the default position.
The selectors are now wondering about the cost of public disloyalty. So here's some advice: don't do it unless you have a plausible alternative. Don't drop Bradley Wiggins as your main man in the Tour de France unless you have Chris Froome already in the team. Team Sky were bold enough to risk such disloyalty, and that's how they won the event in 2012 and then 2013.
And here's some more advice. Pity it comes too late, really: be very careful before you get moral in public. Especially in sport. You have to accept that runs are not the reward for good behaviour. And that nasty men can also score centuries. It's also true that a person whose nature is fundamentally disloyal can do a fine job for a team. There's something offensive about the very idea but every team that has even known success has experienced it to some degree. Certainly England have.
But if not Cook, who? Eoin Morgan is the obvious choice, but he can't buy a run either and looks like a busted flush. No point in being publicly disloyal to Captain Loyal - and finding yourself even worse off. So here's the moral: sport may be a minefield but it's not half as explosive as morality.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books