December 31 2013 at 10:24am By Mike Dickson
Graeme Swann’s timing was quite appalling, but he was right about one point when quitting this Ashes tour — sometimes it’s better to admit it when you are no longer up to the job.
That is one thing Alastair Cook can take from the star spinner’s decision to sling his hook: the skipper would be best to concede he is not suited to the task of taking England forward from the debacle in Australia.
Careful succession planning is fine when things are running smoothly but next week somebody needs to take the hard decision that England’s interests are best served by Cook returning to the ranks.
It brings to mind Harold Macmillan’s reputed remark about what can derail the best-laid plans of a government: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ England have been overtaken by them, and in this case they refer to the humiliation of the national side by a motivated but hardly exceptional Australia team.
Regardless of what happens in Sydney, Stuart Broad should be asked to step up from his captaincy role with the Twenty20 side and extend his duties across different formats.
For it is clear that Cook is not the man for the most difficult leadership role in any sport. He has been found wanting on many fronts, most obviously in the area of tactical acumen. There have been few more stinging appraisals of this than that of Mark Butcher, a sympathetic and intelligent former player with a sharp cricketing brain.
In the wake of the Melbourne defeat his verdict, delivered to Cricinfo, was excoriating: ‘It’s now 100 per cent confirmed in my mind he (Cook) doesn’t have a natural feel for the game. He isn’t able to spot things before they happen or react. Tactically he was awful, absolutely awful.
There have been many similar, albeit more sugar-coated assessments. The fear has been realised that the decent Cook, a masterful cricketer while in his own bubble and pacing an innings, does not have the skills to orchestrate the team.
Anyone who has been close to an Ashes tour knows Australia can be a desperately unforgiving place. The 24/7 pressure from the local media and public make it extra demanding.
It has proved way too much for the coach-captain partnership of Cook and Andy Flower, going well beyond on-field strategy.
Other features, like repeat batting collapses (however well Mitchell Johnson has bowled), and the mid-tour retirement of a senior player, hardly tell of healthy atmospheres or inspirational leadership. A sure dividend of Cook being stood down would be him being allowed to get back to what he does best, laying the platform for the innings, a job everyone knows he can do brilliantly.
He is not the first to have struggled padding up after captaining in the field.
That is something Broad would be spared, and while he may not look the perfect replacement — his workload would need watching — he is a clear and realistic alternative.
He has been England’s best bowler and has not shrunk from the battle, despite being a totem of hate for the Australian fans and press. He is intelligent and articulate, too, for all the questions about his hot-headed temperament.
It would need to be made clear that he must cut out some of his more macho posturing if he wants the position. At 27 and secure in the team, he ought to be capable of that.
There were similar concerns about Nasser Hussain’s abrasive attitude when he was made captain but his reign, alongside Duncan Fletcher — like Flower, another uncompromising Zimbabwean — turned out to be a boon for the England team.
The removal of Flower, an impressive figure, would be an upheaval too far, and his credit lines rightly run deep through his achievements.