Cricket captains tend to have a limited life span in the current climate. The South African Graham Smith, unusually given the captaincy at the young age of 22. Is the only captain that one can think off in recent times of having any real longevity.
It is almost universally accepted that a cricket captain is more pivotal than in virtually any other sport. The responsibilities off the field to the likes of the media and sponsors are a necessary addition to the constant trials on the field. Captains tend to be batsman, one might suggest this is perhaps down to the responsibility of field setting and the need to objectively analyse the performance of the bowlers. The reduced likelihood of injury is also likely to go in the batsman's favour in terms of captaincy. For a Test match captain the strain is almost constant, particularly as their own form will also be scrutinised in addition to their performance as captain. It is another noticeable phenomenon of the modern game, caused in part by central contracts that international captains do not captain in county cricket.
There is no singular model for captaincy. Mike Brearley's psychological approach, despite his limitations as a player made him a popular and successful captain. In contrast, Australian Ian Chappell shared the high regard as a captain but this was down to a tough and rugged approach that has seemed to have set the bar for future Australian captains. To Chappell, captaincy was not a popularity contest outside his own dressing room. The cavalier David Gower is known to have clashed with the roundhead Graham Gooch despite captaining within the same era. Richie Benaud and Sir Frank Worrell were known as great captains for the way they played the game which dragged it from a time of negative tactics to one that could be enjoyed by spectators once again. One might suggest that cricket today requires something of a mix of the Brearley, Chappell, Gooch, Gower, Benaud and Worrell approach with a bit more public relations thrown in for good measure. One might also point out a tendency to be more nostalgic for cricketers in long ago generations.
Napoleon's comments about lucky generals being better than good ones can easily be applied to captaincy. Whilst not a believer in luck, one has to acknowledge that Captains can go down in history as "good" as a simple consequence of other teams being poor at the time. The great England all rounder Ian Botham feels, with justification, that when his side went up against the formidable West Indies he lost narrowly and was not wiped off the face of the Earth as would happen to later England captains. Mike Atherton had the misfortune to captain England at the time of one of the best Australian sides in history and, as a result, will go down in history as a captain that never won the Ashes. Cricket history can be an intolerant judge.
Alistair Cook has had the fortune or misfortune of captaining England at a time of great change for the sport. One can say with confidence that he was earmarked for the England captaincy many years before. An opening batsman with an unflappable temperament and youthful looks, he seemed to be a natural. He has mixed success and failure and, largely treated those two imposters just the same.
He has been fortunate in the sense he inherited a successful side. His attack of Broad and Anderson have been consistently reliable and, largely, injury free. He has also had the supremely talented Joe Root for company for much of his captaincy. The rather bizarre inability of touring sides to play a moving ball in English conditions has certainly helped and the production of pitches that favoured England at home likewise. His own form has suffered slightly as captain but not to the levels that have been seen in others.
His misfortune has been losing Graeme Swann, the talismanic England off spinner relatively early in his captaincy. Swann stands out like a beacon in terms of England spinners over recent times, the best since Derek Underwood many generations before him. To lose him at the time he did and in the way he did hit England hard and it is still hitting them hard today. Comparing different generations is manifestly unfair but it is merely stating fact that England has struggled to find a replacement for him.
Cook as also captained during the time of social media, meaning all and sundry have had their say. Criticism is part and parcel of being a cricketer and particularly a captain but the stick handed to Cook seemed at times particularly vitriolic. In the early part of his captaincy Cook could be described as a reactive rather than proactive captain and was conservative in his outlook at a time when other captains were importing tactics used in the shorter form of the game and generally seen as being rather more innovative. However Cook was in the early stages of his captaincy evolution at the time and he seemed to be an easy target for the critical journalist, particularly as he reacted publically to that criticism. For a man who was a choir boy and, quite remarkably still looks like a choir boy, getting angry in public did not seem to fit his persona.
The whole Kevin Pietersen affair that blighted part of his captaincy is seemingly going to remain a mystery to those not from the inner sanctum of the dressing room. To suggest fault on anyone's part when not party to the whole truth is unfair but there is a distinct impression given by Cook that he was hung out to try by the authorities. His was the public face of the decision to exile England's most mercurial cricketer whether he agreed with the decision or not. One cannot help but feel that the whole situation could and should have been handled considerably better. We will never know whether Cook would have done better with Pietersen in his side.
Of Cook's notable triumphs is not the Ashes but the win on South African soil. At a time when away wins are notably rare in Test cricket, to beat a strong Proteas team on their own patch should be seen as his crowning glory rather than beating an Australian side that whilst still good, lacked the edge of invincibility that previous Australian sides had possessed. Some will see the recent hammering by India as a low point but a captain will struggle without an exceptional spinner in those conditions, particularly if the opposition has two exceptional spinners and an in form Virat Kohli in it.
Rather typically of the man, the end came with no fanfare, no tears and no Churchill-esque speeches. Instead there was an announcement and, a bit of time later an interview explaining the decision. One hopes to see him continue as a player as time is still on his side and his powers of concentration, coupled with his undoubted talent can still provide a platform for more flamboyant players to build on.
If one was to ask the question, has Alastair Cook been a good captain then this blogger would argue yes. Not an exceptional captain but one who has balanced the good fortune of Root, Broad and Anderson with the misfortune of losing Swann and Pietersen plus the advent of social media to become, eventually, a good captain of England. A man who is seemingly well liked by this players and despite being an introverted character, one capable of success. The great and much missed Richie Benaud once described captaincy as "90% luck and 10% skill, but don't try it without the 10%". It is likely he was being self-deprecating at the time given his own impressive reputation as a captain, but there is a case for a captain only being as good as his own players and the opposition at the time. All in all, Cook should come out pretty well.
The news has now broken that Joe Root will take over. Historically, England has a habit of thrusting the captaincy on their best player and he is a special talent. One would anticipate a continuation of Cook's captaincy style. The hope will be that Root can continue piling the runs on whilst captaining the side. The issues he may have could actually be worse than Cook's.
Broad and Anderson cannot go on forever and there still seems to be no world class spinner on the horizon. Whether some of the more attacking players elect to play in shorter forms of the game only remains to be seen. Regardless, we wish him well and thank Alistair Cook for some good memories.