Let’s end Cook de­bate quickly and hope Jimmy stays healthy, too

Peter Hayter looks at the key is­sues that Eng­land must ad­dress in 2017 and where they might go with them

The Cricket Paper - - FEATURE -

The scriptwrit­ers scrib­bling away at what’s in store for Eng­land’s Test cricket are cur­rently grap­pling with more plot lines than The Archers. No doubt the next 12 months will con­tain the fa­mil­iar head-spin­ning mix of twists and turns and mo­ments no one could have seen com­ing.

But by the time Eng­land’s Test crick­eters start 2018 with the fi­nal Test of next winter’s Ashes in Syd­ney, the fate and fu­ture of at least three prom­i­nent char­ac­ters will have been de­cided and sev­eral key is­sues re­solved.

The first and most press­ing is­sue is just who will be lead­ing them.

A straw poll con­ducted on the fi­nal day of Eng­land’s fifth Test against In­dia in Chen­nai, where, if any­one needs re­mind­ing, they con­ceded 759-7 and lost by an in­nings and 75 runs to fin­ish the se­ries 4-0 losers, would have been all but unan­i­mous in re­flect­ing the wide­spread opin­ion that Alas­tair Cook’s cap­taincy was over.

Most ob­servers were per­suaded that Cook had earned the right to make the de­ci­sion him­self, some, in­clud­ing the BBC’s cricket cor­re­spon­dent Jonathan Agnew, went on record to say that time had passed and it should be taken out of his hands, pre­sum­ably by Andrew Strauss, his for­mer bat­ting part­ner and now di­rec­tor of Eng­land cricket.

But pretty much all were agreed the time had come for him to be re­placed and that he him­self thought so, too.

Not only had he flagged up the pos­si­bil­ity in ad­vance of the tour in an in­ter­view in which he ap­peared to rel­ish the prospect of go­ing back to the ranks for the fi­nal part of his ex­cel­lent ca­reer but, by the end of the tour his body lan­guage was shout­ing: “ENOUGH.”

Per­haps most telling was his frank as­sess­ment that, un­der him, Eng­land had stag­nated dur­ing the pre­vi­ous 12 months,

Fur­ther­more, at his post-de­feat Press con­fer­ence, Cook had gone as far as was ap­pro­pri­ate in ac­tu­ally nom­i­nat­ing his suc­ces­sor, say­ing that, what­ever any­one else thought, in­clud­ing Graeme Swann, he was sure Joe Root was good, ready and more than ca­pa­ble of do­ing the job.

Cook’s New Year brief­ing with Strauss seemed like the ob­vi­ous time for the deed to be done, but it wasn’t, and, as time passed, hints were land­ing that he may not be go­ing af­ter all.

Af­ter all, it was un­der­lined, as Eng­land had no Test match sched­uled un­til July, there was no need to rush, that un­ex­pected de­lay caus­ing some to re­think their ear­lier pre­dic­tions.

For the sake of all con­cerned, how­ever, this can­not go on and the call should be made sooner rather than later.

One other ex­pla­na­tion for string­ing it out un­til now is that the de­ci­sion has al­ready been made but that the ECB would rather an­nounce it on their own turf at Lord’s in their own time, with all their ducks in a row and all in­ter­ested par­ties such as Cook, Root, coach Trevor Bayliss, na­tional se­lec­tor James Whi­taker and Un­cle Tom Cob­ley present, cor­rect and read­ing from the same Press re­lease.

Cyn­ics call that news man­age­ment, but bear­ing in mind the fact that Strauss, Root and Eng­land have been try­ing to pri­ori­tise their one-day com­mit­ments in In­dia for their own sake and as part of their build-up to the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy, in this case per­fectly jus­ti­fi­able.

If this is so, how­ever, ex­pect in­vi­ta­tions to the corona­tion of King Joe to be sent out early next month when, or soon af­ter he and Bayliss re­turn from In­dia at the cul­mi­na­tion of the T20 se­ries that ends in the third match in Ban­ga­lore next Wed­nes­day. If not, your guess is as good as mine. Is Root up to it? Ditto, yet while Swann and oth­ers main­tain you would be los­ing more from him as chief dress­ing room gag­ster than gain­ing as leader, surely this is his time.

Tougher and far more ma­ture than he looks, thank good­ness, Root has come in for crit­i­cism lately for fail­ing to con­vert 50s more of­ten.

In­deed in 2016, while he reached 50 on 13 oc­ca­sions and 70 in six com­pleted in­nings, only three did he con­vert into hun­dreds: 110 against South Africa in Jo­han­nes­burg, his mas­ter­ful 254 against Pak­istan at Old Traf­ford in July and 124 in the first Test against In­dia, af­ter which, as if to prove the point, his scores read 4, 53, 25, 15, 78, 21, 77, 88 and 6.

Per­haps now, with stronger op­tions at the top of the or­der to bat ei­ther side of Cook, in Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jen­nings, Root may be able to drop down to his pre­ferred po­si­tions of four or five.

In any case, his sup­port­ers will be hop­ing that far from weigh­ing him down, the ex­tra re­spon­si­bil­ity of cap­taincy might be the key to un­lock­ing con­sis­tency, as it was for Gra­ham Gooch and Strauss, to name but two re­cent in­cum­bents. There is only one way to find out.

But any cap­tain is only as good as his play­ers, Strauss and Cook know just how for­tu­nate they have been to be able to call on Eng­land’s all-time lead­ing wicket-taker and if Root could have one wish, if and when he takes over, it would be to roll back the clock on Jimmy An­der­son and gain five more years of his bril­liance.

How­ever, much An­der­son rages against the thought of his Eng­land ca­reer ever end­ing, even he must ac­knowl­edge that the suc­ces­sion of nig­gles and in­juries that ruled him

Per­haps now, with stronger op­tions at the top of the or­der ei­ther side of Cook, Root can drop to his pre­ferred po­si­tions of four or five

out of a num­ber of Tests this year, in­clud­ing the en­tire trip to Bangladesh and two of the five Tests in In­dia, may no longer be down to co­in­ci­dence.

While, as in Mum­bai and Mohali, An­der­son might well have ended up bend­ing his back for no re­ward on an­other un­help­ful pitch in Chen­nai, and In­dia’s mas­sive to­tal sug­gests he was well out of it, when Cook ex­plained he was be­ing left out of the last match, on ac­count of “body sore­ness” those words in­di­cated two things; Eng­land will do ev­ery­thing they can to pro­tect the leader of their at­tack and as time passes it is be­com­ing harder and harder to do so.

Fully fit, on song and in the right con­di­tions, even at 34, An­der­son can be un­playable. He de­tests the idea of re­tire­ment with the pas­sion that has driven him to take 467 Test wick­ets, he has time to prop­erly rest ev­ery­thing and come back strong be­tween now and the start of the county sea­son and the Test se­ries with South Africa be­yond, and rest as­sured he will do ev­ery­thing within his power to do so.

But, sadly, ex­pect­ing him to sur­vive five Ashes Tests Down Un­der at the end of the year is look­ing in­creas­ingly like wish­ful think­ing.

Three plot­lines writ­ten, loads more sub-plots to come be­fore the cred­its roll on an­other year of Eng­land Test cricket that will, as usual, of­fer its de­voted fol­low­ers sport­ing soap opera at its most com­pelling.

Stay tuned.

Cut­ting a dash: Eng­land bats­man Joe Root show­ing off his one-day skills for Eng­land

Fit­ness fears: Jimmy An­der­son

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

De­ci­sion mak­ers: Alas­tair Cook with his old Eng­land skip­per Andrew Strauss who, now as Eng­land Cricket Di­rec­tor, will have to re­solve the cap­taincy sit­u­a­tion with his suc­ces­sor

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