An absolute minuscule number of Australian’s would ever claim to like Alastair Cook. What is interesting, though, is about the same number would claim to hate him. For all the runs he scored back in 2010/11, Cook is typically regarded with utter apathy. Partly because those runs were scored against the likes Bollinger, Gentle Ben and Nathan Bloody Hauritz (a player so dull we’ve never bothered to write an article on him), but partly also because Cook is just so damn….beige. Other English batsmen who scored piles of runs down under, such as Vaughan, Strauss or Kevin Pietersen, elicit far greater emotional responses than does Cook. Most would be surprised to discover he is even part of this current tour, such is his enigmatic nature.
Yet part of this tour he is, and happily so for the ECB and the legion of English journalists covering the team. For Cook has now emerged as the number one fall guy for England’s fortunes, and should the tour continue in the same vein in which it has started, Cook will undoubtedly assume the role that was thrust upon KP last time around; the sacrificial victim cast before the slavering masses to distract attention away from captain fabulous. Last time captain fabulous, ironically enough, was Cook himself. This time around it will be in Roots name that Cooks quivering corpse will be served up. Funny how things work out.
The knives are already being sharpened for Cook after the Gabba Test. Already the words ‘terminal decline’ are being bandied about. His poor shot selection late on the third day supposedly ‘undermined’ Root’s fantastic captaincy in keeping Australia to a manageable total. A narrative is beginning to be spun, but already it feels false. For one, whilst Root is hardly a bad captain by any means, most of the plans England employed in the Test likely originated from Trevor Bayliss, who knows the Australian team inside out.
Then there was the weird episode with the second new ball, when Anderson bowled only three overs. Everyone assumed he was injured except….he seemingly wasn’t. Root just appears to have not wanted to bowl him despite Australia being seven down at the time. It was bizarre and everyone seemed desperate to find ulterior motives for what was unfolding (Anderson had a side strain, was changing strapping, had a bruised shoulder, had caught dysentery after dipping his toe in the Gabba pool) rather than accept Root had stuffed up by not employing his front line attack when Australia’s batting was at its most vulnerable.
The point isn’t to pick fault with Root’s captaincy, but to highlight that it is far from infallible. However whenever faults do appear scapegoats need to be found, and the media seem to have already decided Cook is going to be ‘that guy’ this tour. Sure, he isn’t helping his cause by not scoring with the bat, but that ranks as but one of England’s problems at the moment and nowhere near the most pressing.
Which isn’t to say Cook isn’t in a terminal decline. Maybe he is. But then again, maybe he isn’t. And yet you can already see where this is heading. Unless England are able to turn their fortunes around Cook will find himself on the scrap heap by the end of the tour. Unceremoniously shoved out the door in order to bring a ‘young face’, with no doubt a few lurking remarks thrown in for good measure that his very presence in the team had been distracting for Root.
The twist is that Cook was awful on his last Ashes tour, but was protected from any criticism by the ‘establishment’. The same establishment that will happily turn against him now. Since, even if Cook does score a few runs, if England ultimately still go down you just know how this is going to end. England’s greatest ever Test run scorer will almost certainly not be afforded the chance to say farewell on his own terms, in front of his home crowd. Instead he will be cast as the weak link and hounded out by the media. The irony of Sydney likely being his last Test, as it was for KP four years ago, won’t be lost on many.
As for Aussie fans, few will be sad to see him go. As equally few will feel him hard done by. Most will instead enjoy the sight of England feasting on their own once more. Does Cook deserve better than this? Well, yeah. But giving fond send-offs to its heroes hardly seems the English way. A swift knife in the back whilst far from home is the preferred method, and KP is far from alone in experiencing that fate. Perhaps in a few weeks time he might have some more company.