Is Alastair Cook England’s Most Undervalued Sportsman?

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Today we have a guest spot from Jack Jenkins, who feels that England’s cricket captain is generally under-appreciated by both fans and the media. It’s a passionate argument not everyone will agree with. I imagine some of the old arguments Jack mentions might even resurface!

Jack makes some good points. For example, why isn’t Cook a leading contender for the BBC’s sports personality of the year award? I must say I’m slightly flummoxed by this one, especially as Cook gets a lot of good press too. Anyway, it’s over to you Jack …

The last year has been excellent for England captain Alastair Cook, both individually and as a leader of his team. He surpassed Graham Gooch to become England’s highest ever Test run scorer, regained The Ashes in fine style, and hit a fine 265 against Pakistan to go beyond 1300 runs for the year. Yet Cook’s critics are often much louder than his proponents. This leaves him very much in the wilderness in terms of the country’s celebrated sporting stars.

Of course this is perhaps to be expected for a man who has always maintained a stern level of understatement – which is typically not endearing to the headline-hunting tabloids who prefer eccentric characters. Yet, beyond this, there appears a great deal of under-appreciation for the Gloucester-born opener.

A reliable way to gauge inter-sport popularity in Britain is the odds for BBC’s Sport’s Personality of the Year award. Now it may and probably should be expected that Cook, a man who is the leading Test-run scorer in the world this year, should be relatively well-backed to win the top prize. This, however, could not be further from the truth.

Cook is a meagre 50/1 to win the prize. He’s deemed less likely to win than people such as Kevin Sinfield and even his own team-mate Joe Root. It’s extremely hard to justify this situation, especially as it would be difficult to expect much more from him over the past year. He’s continued to clock up quite extraordinary numbers.

Perhaps this can be somewhat explained by the Kevin Pietersen saga that has plagued English cricket for years. The Piers Morgan-backed media furore created a divide right through the very centre of English cricket. On certain occasions this transcended the sport itself, ludicrously venturing into the world of class and education.

Of course the privately educated Cook was largely painted as the snotty-nosed, posh boy by Pietersen and his allies, which had a dramatically adverse effect on Cook’s popularity. He was adjudged to be at the centre to some upper-class alliance against the South-African – born batsman which turned a large proportion of the public against him.

It is at this point that the opener would’ve been well justified in staging a viciously defensive media campaign of his own. Though, rather commendably, he has persistently batted away any malicious questions aimed at him – much like he would facing an Australian seamer – in the diplomatic way that has come to define his career. This might not have helped his public image but it has most certainly maintained his integrity, something which should be given much greater respect by the public.

Meanwhile, all of this unwarranted controversy and attention has arguably over-shadowed what a fine Test opener Cook really is. He is the youngest Englishman to reach 1500, 2000, 3000, 4000 and 5000 Test runs and in 2013 he eclipsed Sachin Tendulkar’s record of becoming the youngest ever player to reach 8000. He is also currently just 220 runs shy of his 10,000th and with the away series against South Africa beginning on Boxing Day, he could feasibly pass that milestone just days after his 31st birthday. These are quite stunning figures and one can only predict that the England captain will go on to become one of the game’s greatest ever run scorers.

The under-appreciation of Cook becomes even more astounding considering the difficulty selectors have had in finding a replacement opener for Andrew Strauss. Compton, Carberry, Robson, Trott and Lyth have all come and gone, whilst Moeen Ali looks set to move back down the order in a similar fashion to Joe Root. This should have highlighted just how difficult a task opening the batting is, and what a great asset England have in Cook. Instead the criticisms continue, even after his fine performance in the UAE.

It is not often that this country has a genuine sporting legend in the making, and now when it does have one, he is lamented and criticised while perennial under-achievers and nearly-men are lauded as heroes. Perhaps it will only be once Cook has retired that English cricket will realise what a truly great cricketer they once had.

Jack Jenkins

28 Comments

  1. I think Cook’s critics usually criticise his captaincy more than his batting. His batting issues seem to have come out of attempting to become a more aggressive batsman than he’s capable of, to justify his ODI captaincy. For this reason, Cook being suggested as possibly going to the Pakistan T20 league trouble me a little.

    Cook’s broader popularity (or lack thereof) and his lack of SPOTY award has nothing to do with him, his play or his personality. As a public vote it relies on the relative exposure of the sportspersons involved, and with no live English cricket on FTA TV people aren’t seeing it. It’s barely covered in news bulletins, or in papers. It’s no coincidence that the last cricketer to win the publicly voted SPOTY award was Flintoff in 2005.

    If there was a public vote solely amongst England cricket fans, they would still likely choose Root over Cook for Cricket Personality Of The Year. I think they would because Root had by far the better Ashes series, and unfortunately that is basically what every English cricketer is measured on. There are other factors of course. Root plays in all formats, he isn’t tainted by anti-ECB/anti-establishment bias, and his playing style is generally more exciting to watch.

    Cook is definitely a great England player, and deserves recognition. Unfortunately he plays a sport which can’t be watched by the majority of the country he plays for, and that’s been the case since his England debut in 2006. His profile (or even Root’s) will never reach the heights that KP, Flintoff, Vaughan, Tufnell or other players from the FTA era have.

    • Pretty good Danny.

      Alistair Cook is a decent, solid run accumulator and seems to be liked by everyone who knows him, including KP. He is never going to be one who sets the world on fire, it’s just not who he is. He does his work in a different way but he is hugely valued. Not by all, but by the majority. It’s obvious to see.

    • Add to that the award is for sports personality of the year, rather than sportsperson.
      One can see how Root, for example, might then have an advantage over Cook.

      • On SPOTY (which is an anachronism left over from the days the BBC had most of the sport and would be best put out of its misery in my view) you might as well ask why Boycott or Atherton never won it (or came even vaguely close).

        Flair-laden all-rounders are the only cricketers who ever win SPOTY. Grinding batsmen are not going to appeal outside the game’s hard core. The one exception was David Steele in 1975 which combined a high profile for cricket with the first WC and a parched summer, relief at someone (especially an unlikely someone) standing up to Lillee and Thomo after the duffing up in 74/75 and an off-year in other sports (no Olympics, Soccer WC etc). In a nutshell, a combination of circumstances that are likely to occur about once every half century!

  2. “The Piers Morgan-backed media furore created a divide right through the very centre of English cricket. On certain occasions this transcended the sport itself, ludicrously venturing into the world of class and education.”

    Hmmm. I don’t have time to do this justice, but a couple of obvious observations :

    I agree with Danny – the lack of cricket on terrestrial TV must have an effect on whether or not cricketers make any impact on SPOTY. Cook might want to talk to his bosses at the ECB if he’s bothered by that. (I suspect he isn’t!)
    Piers Morgan did Pietersen no favours, and is generally regarded negatively even by those who think the way a top class batsman was discarded by the ECB was an unmitigated shambles and an under-investigated scandal.
    Also, if you think it ludicrous that class and education intrude into discussions about cricket . . . well, you perhaps haven’t been watching it much for the last century or so. Particularly when it comes to those who are supposedly “in charge” of the game.

    • Ah yes, Giles Clarke’s infamous “right sort of family” comment. This made it easy for critics to bring elitism into the argument. I hope you received my email the other day Northern Light. Apologies for the intro to the Mitch piece.

  3. He is the leading run scorer because most other sides have hardly played more than half a dozen Tests (England have played 13 Tests, Australia 10, Sri Lanka 9. The rest are on 8 or less). In addition to that, 7 Tests were at home, while three Tests were in the easiest away series England will play this decade (which England still managed to stuff up).

    If you measure by average, he has had a good year, but hardly a spectacular one. Which is reflected in his average being the 17th best this year thus far (with the worst strike rate of the top 17 too). He also went missing in the Ashes Tests that England won. And heroic in defeat does not really get you much credit, now does it? In the series that mattes most apparently, he finally managed to average something on the right side of 30. For the first time in three attempts in England.

    I am sorry, but if that is such an unprecedented feat, may I ask who Geoffrey Boycott is? Len Hutton? Eddie Paynter? All of whom have averaged 100+ in an Ashes series in England? Cook’s best effort is the 139th best ever by an England batsman in a series against Australia in England. Dilley in 1981 had a better average (37.50 compared to Cook’s 36.66; last time I checked Dilley played almost 50% of his innings at #11). Oh, and other than Atherton, there is no other specialist batsman who has played in more Ashes innings in England without ever scoring a ton (Stewart played as a wicketkeeper). Remind me how much of a shoe-in Athers was for these awards …

    His interview after the calamitous world cup cannot have really endeared Cook to the general public either. The selflessness that led to the black comedy known as the England World Cup campaign, by being adamant that he should captain the side, no matter how poor his returns were. That he was eventually axed has helped his game – but rest assured, no one but Cook will get credit for that most sensible decision.

    One of the reasons Compton, Carberry, Root, Robson, Moeen, Trott, and Lyth have come and gone, is that half of them did no worse than Cook, but the anointed one was apparently perfectly justified in stabbing several of these men, with the blessings of the selection panels, in the back, for the audacity of looking better than Cook. Sure, they may have had their limitations, but we have basically been forced to wait for 2 years for Cook to finally perform again. Of all the others, Compton got 9 Tests, Lyth and Robson got 7, and the rest got 5 Tests or less.

    As for his charm offensive, that has been done by the mainstream press ever since 2014. The steely cores, the selflessness (which of course meant that it was perfectly selfless for him to make Stokes, with a serious shoulder injury, face 5 balls of Wahab). The MSM declared an innings of 43 worth more than a century after Australia were bowled out for 60. The actual centurion in that innings Root (130), or Bairstow (74) got little to no credit for their respective efforts. The not being held to account for various ludicrous statements (Matty can play as long as he wants, a three inch tear in an achilles tendon was nothing but a minor inconvenience apparently; Buttler is not ready; and God knows which expletives he used to congratulate Mathews in 2014). Headingley Day 4 against Sri Lanka in 2014 was surpassed by Headingley Day 4 against New Zealand in 2015. But rest assured, no criticism of that was ever aired in the MSM – no, they propagated the ludicrous idea that Sri Lanka were cheating, because they played by the actual rules of the game.

    If that is a neutral press, I wonder what a friendly press would look like?

    Another thing that does not help is that viewership of Sky severely limits the ability of cricket to capture the general imagination. Hard to win an award, if just about 7% of the population can even see the sport. More people will have seen Stuart Bingham win the World Championship snooker than Cook. What are the odds on Bingham getting it?

    • Statistics are always open to interpretation. Like D’Arthez says, Cook has more Test runs total than anyone else in 2015 in large part because he (as well of course as Root, Bell and Stokes) have played more games than anyone else this year. Even amongst international openers, his average is lower than for Dhawan, Vijay, Warner and Hafeez. Which of course isn’t to put down Cook’s year, an average of 59.00 is still remarkable.

      Alternatively you could point out that Root has a slightly higher Test average in this period, because he was not out two more times than Cook. As a three formats player, Root has also scored 722 more than Cook for England this year which is another pretty impressive number. Root has even taken nine wickets this year across all formats, with a test average of 38.87. By comparison, that’s better than Ali (45.06), Rashid (69.50) and Patel (54.66). Going by statistics, Root should be England’s number one test spinner.

    • Are you serious in your assumption that Cook stabbed his list of opening partners in the back because they were looking better than him?

      If the selectors had dropped Cook in favour of anyone from the list I think it could have turned out to be a mistake. As I’m no soothsayer its probably best to leave it there.

      Go well.

      • Well, he did do no better to justify the axing of Compton, Robson, or Carberry. Carberry got one tour, did well enough considering the circumstances, outbatted Cook, and was summarily discarded. The case of Compton is also quite peculiar.

        Now I don’t know what happened in dressing rooms, and meetings with selectors, etc., but it seems highly doubtful that Cook gave a vote of confidence to any of these players (just look at how long other perennial non-performers lasted). Despite the fact that they were doing okay. Despite the fact that Compton in particular had established an opening partnership that actually worked.

        The case of Trott is a peculiar one. He gave a vote of confidence, to a player, ho usually bats at 4 for his county, and in the past batted at three for England. This was not an emergency situation, as Lyth was there.

        It is hard to imagine that the other opener (and captain) did not have one iota of influence in these matters. I think it is more a test of face-fitting-ness, and all these players failed. Actual contributions did not matter one iota – and that cannot be laid at the door of Cook the batsman, but certainly at the door of Cook the captain.

        • I have no doubt that Cook has some influence but in the time of Andy Flower, Flower would have had more. A lot more.

          Carberry I think had a rough deal and they missed an opportunity in not persevering with him. Unfortunately the Guardian article would have put paid to any return.

          Robson was never the right choice. His technique is very poor and he was unlikely to ever come good.

          Compton ‘froze’ at Headingley and then fell out with Andy Flower over an injury. He also spoke to the press about his deselection which would not have gone down well with the previous administration.

          On the matter of Jonathan Trott I am inclined to agree with you.

          There are two things to consider here. Much was done to help Trott in his rehabilitation and there could have been a conscious or subconscious element of compassion in the decision to play him.

          On the other hand Cook is always very supportive of his friends and seems to like to have the people he knows, around him. That could well have played a major part.

          i think we have been lucky to have Alistair Cook. Over the years we could have done a lot worse without him.

          • So now you’re arguing that selections are media based, rather than merit based? How many spines do the selectors collectively average?

            Funny how various media statements are never used against Broad (with a lovely excuse for a hangover; the less than flattering things he has said about Flower at times), Anderson (his comments against the coaching, particularly the bowling plans), and Cook, amongst others, to argue that these players should be dropped.

            Or even Swann, who criticised team mates in his autobiography, while he was still playing. But somehow when Pietersen does the same in his autobiography, then he has committed a cardinal sin …

            As for Alastair Cook, he is a good batsman, one of the better openers around. Though it is difficult to compare, as all teams are transitioning now. Comparing Cook who has been playing international cricket for a decade with someone who has barely started is not fair. We don’t know what say Joe Burns or Stiaan van Zyl will do in their careers. Of the openers who have recently concluded their careers, I’d certainly take Graeme Smith over Cook.

  4. If any argument about Cook wants to have some sort of credibility, it’s got to consider performances by measures not just of absolute volume. By all means mention Cook’s volumes of runs (and they are a tribute to his fitness and staying power), but you cannot just ignore variations in the number of matches played between countries and between eras.

    Cook made his debut on 1st March 2006. Tests played by each country since then:

    http://stats.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/stats/index.html?class=1;filter=advanced;orderby=matches;spanmin1=01+mar+2006;spanval1=span;template=results;type=team

    Well, SA played 34 fewer matches, NZ 44 fewer and Pakistan 46 fewer. Does that mean Amla, Williamson and Younis Khan are inferior batsmen?

    I’m not against a little selective stat-mining, and may even have been known to indulge occasionally myself, but there are limits…..

  5. Great article. I agree that Cook is, without doubt, the most maligned player in England today. I imagine it could only have worse if he had been born to an English mother in South Africa….

    • He is certainly maligned by many on social media, outside cricket and below the line but Twitter has never been a reliable reflection of the national consciousness. He is clearly widely supported by the paying public and his team. There are cricket followers who don’t like him and many who do. I would never say he is undervalued. Geoffrey Boycott, who is no slouch, says that if he was compiling a world 11 Alistair Cook would be number one on his list. There is value in that.

  6. Fair point well made. Not a great captain but a good one. As far as his batting is concerned stats don’t lie. Speaking from the other side of the ashes divide

  7. The Piers Morgan-backed media furore created a divide right through the very centre of English cricket. I have to take issue with this. The divide through the centre of English cricket, the media furore and the comment-thread hostility surrounding the sacking of Pietersen was the reaction of large numbers of individual cricket supporters who were still blazing angry over the ignominious defeat in Australia and simply couldn’t believe the actions that the England management were taking. Most of these people were unaware of any activities by a discredited tabloid editor and ex-chat show host, who doesn’t have the power or reach to orchestrate a campaign in the way some choose to believe.

    You may feel that Cook was unlucky to be in the eye of that particular storm, and you may well be right. I think he was more unlucky to be subsequently made the hero of relentless ECB publicity that became as annoying as a badly made TV advert and has only resulted in making him unpopular with a number of cricket fans.

  8. No problem, Jenny, that middle ‘i’ fools a lot of people 🙂

    I do get irritated with the way Piers Morgan is constantly trotted out whenever Pietersen is mentioned. Morgan’s a cricket fan and club player and is of course entitled to express his views, and being a rather loud person he’ll express them loudly, but he doesn’t dictate the agenda. Other people do that, or try to.

  9. It becomes very easy to identify those who are clearly spouting the anti Cook agenda from the KP / Piers Morgan perspective by the total lack of balance in their statement and the sheer venom in personal comments like “Anointed one”

    Comparing Cooks average during the Ashes with that of Dilley has to be one of the most blinkered and ignorant arguments I have ever seen …. the total lack of value placed on the fact he OPENS the batting facing the new ball against two of the fastest bowlers to have played the game says a lot for this D’Arthez character … he writes in the same way you would expect the individual described elsewhere here as a discredited tabloid Editor …… is it another Piers Morgan Alias comment I wonder

    The comment about Root being more deserving of an award may have some merit but let’s not forget he was deemed not to have the right skills to do the more difficult job of opener and I am reminded of Mike Athertons comment about the openers having to tough it out at the sharp end so the pretty boys can come in later to tap it around a bit. Something only real cricket aficionados would truly appreciate.

    He claims Cook “went missing” during the Ashes tests England won …. seriously ? you can really win an ashes test when the Captain doesn’t show up ?

    Next he is criticised for not scoring an ashes ton in England as if scoring 96 was so much less value to the team than 100 ….. funny he didn’t mention that or maybe not.

    People talk about class and there is the type referred to that is associated with privileged upbringing education money etc but more importantly there is the type that describes how people judge others and conduct themselves and in this regard Cook has shown he is a giant of a man compared to his detractors who, without exception are devoid of any of such trait.

    I could go on and on and on but having made my point I am sure readers will know whose comments to just simply disregard as petty and vengeful and just have sympathy for the writer having to go through life with so much poison inside them.

    Here is hoping Cook is still at the helm of both the team and the batting order for a good while yet as he contributes massively to the good feeling of English cricket fans.

  10. Chavah Rosenthal on

    I don’t feel qualified to discuss Alistair Cook’s cricket, but some of his unpopularity is not based on cricket at all. He doesn’t present himself well at interview, when he is inarticulate with an odd mixture of British and US English. The replies given often have little interest and can seem evasive. He is associated too with Ostrich, whose bad behaviour during the Pietersen affair gives him a D for popularity despite his A for cricket knowledge. I’d suggest that many of the attacks on Cook are bigoted and unfair, therefore need not be taken seriously.

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