And so it has happened. After 59 games as England Test captain – a record – Alastair Cook has finally thrown in the towel. The 4-0 hammering in India was the final straw. Enough was enough. Cook decided that it is time for England to have a fresh start.
Indeed, rarely does a Test side get beaten so convincingly on an away tour and not proceed it with considerable changes. Most recent evidence of this was after South Africa rolled over Australia at Hobart to secure the Test series last November. The Aussies brought in five new players for the final Test in Adelaide, including four changes to their top seven after their batsmen were bowled out for 85 and 161. Change was needed.
The same can be said for this England side. And already reform has taken place with the departures of ECB head of elite coach development Gordon Lord and former chairman of selectors David Graveney. It is clear that director of cricket Andrew Strauss wants a different appraoch.
But the latest change, Cook’s resignation as captain, is the most significant of the lot. And with a Test series against South Africa coming up, the pressure will soon be on his likely successor, Joe Root. Admittedly, this was Cook’s decision. Many felt that he looked like a broken man after the final defeat in Chennai and now this has proven to be true. The weight of captaincy is a huge one and Cook felt that in order to succeed for as long as he can for his country, the captaincy had to be sacrificed.
Whether his decision is the right one, we will have to wait and see. However, right now it seems extremely risky. After the drubbing in India, England needed Cook’s experience and leadership to get them back on track in Test match cricket. To play 59 Tests as captain requires resilience, skill and a tremendous amount of mental fortitude – all skills that Cook has in abundance.
So you would be forgiven to think how much England would have benefitted from Cook’s experience as captain, at least until the end of the Ashes series next winter, yet another stern challenge on the England horizon. Cook would have undoubtedly been determined to avenge the disastrous tour down under in 2013/14. Stability is key. Unfortunately, Cook and England have reverted from that.
Instead, Joe Root is set to be appointed as the new Test skipper. It is not quite a stab in the dark but the uncertainty over the future success of this England side now hangs in the balance. Root boasts hardly any captaincy experience, with a handful of games for Yorkshire being his only taste as skipper of a first-class side. An inexperienced new leader is possibly the last thing that England needed right now.
Root has many qualities. He is exuberant, well-respected and has a fine cricket brain. Without doubt he is the right man to succeed Cook as captain. In addition, he is now experienced enough to know of the challenge that Test cricket brings. Yet expecting a series win against a strong South African team in his first series in the job is a tough ask. It will takes time for any player to become a highly skilful captain and it is likely to be no different with Root.
Surely the ideal scenario would have been to hand Root the ODI captaincy and gain some experience from that particular role first. That would have likely made the move to the 26-year-old as captain more of a seamless transition. England now expect Root to immediately deliver as Test captain and that will be difficult.
In addition, who is to say that the captaincy will not have a deleterious effect on Root’s batting? During the first few Tests, this may not be such a problem, as we have seen with Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Steven Smith and even Cook himself, whose initial form with the bat refused to wane. However, in the long run, with the extra responsibility and pressure that captaincy entails, the chances of the runs drying up for Root are bound to increase.
It is imperative to remember that England’s drubbing in the subcontinent was not down to Cook’s poor captaincy. It was not Cook’s fault that England’s approach to batting was reckless throughout the series. It was not Cook’s fault that his batsmen’s fragile techniques were exposed. And it was certainly not Cook’s fault that dropped catches ended up costing his side dearly. So while it is easy to point the blame towards the captain, the real problems within this England side must be emphasised.
Cook certainly had the backing from his team mates. “There’s been a lot of talk about Alastair Cook’s future, but for me he’s our captain and deserves to stay in the job,” Jonny Bairstow wrote in the Daily Mail back in December. “In 2016 he passed 10,000 and 11,000 Test runs – that’s legendary stuff in English batting. He’s our leader and we want him to stay.”
What’s done is done. Cook and Strauss have made their decisions and now it is time for Joe Root to lead the Test side forward into such a crucial upcoming period. But Cook’s resignation signals uncertainty for the future – something that would have been mended by the 31-year-old staying on as skipper. Time will tell whether or not this extremely risky move pays off.