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 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.
Cutting a dash: England batsman Joe Root showing off his one-day skills for England
Fitness fears: Jimmy Anderson
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