Alastair Cook’s future as England captain could be resolved over the next few days.
Cook is expected to meet Andrew Strauss imminently – perhaps as early as this Friday – to discuss his future with an announcement expected to follow shortly afterwards.
Cook cut a somewhat beleaguered figure at times in India. As well as a run of losses – England have lost six of their most recent eight Tests – Cook looked jaded by the demands of the job and the time away from his family. He briefly returned from the tour of Bangladesh to witness the birth of his second child, but was able to spend no more than a few hours with his family before he was obliged to fly back to work.
It may be that a period of rest and reflection has proved enough to revive his enthusiasm for the job. Or it may be that the relative speed with which he appears to have reached a decision is a sign that his mind was resolved to step down long before the end of the tour. Either way, Strauss – who is expected to arrive in the UK overnight on Thursday after a Christmas break in Australia – is expected to meet Cook upon his return to discuss the situation and, realistically, to learn of his decision.
It remains unlikely that Strauss will sack Cook. While there might be legitimate concerns over the apparent divide of methods between Cook and the England coach, Trevor Bayliss, Cook retains a huge amount of respect from his team and there is no sign of any willingness for change from either the players or the coaches. The coaching staff have been at pains to state they prefer the no-change option and express the hope that Cook continues until the end of the Ashes.
There should be no middle course. Cook must know that he either has to go now or continue, come what may, until the end of the Ashes. Anything else would be unfair on his replacement, who will have had very little captaincy experience and needs time to grow into the role. So, unless he is sure he can take defeat, or loss of personal form, or the media pressure, or all the rest of it, he has to go now. There is no scope for another England captain to resign midway through a series against South Africa and for a new man to be plunged into the role without time to plan or adapt.
That replacement would be Joe Root. While Root has plenty on his plate already – his partner is due to give birth to their first child this week and he is, arguably, England’s most important batsman in all three formats of the game – his peers in other nations (the likes of Virat Kohli and Steve Smith, in particular) have shown that the burden of captaincy need not dilute their effectiveness as players.
If Cook does decide to step down – again, it seems unlikely that Strauss will sack him – he will leave with a proud record. To have won Test series in India and South Africa, as well as two home Ashes series, is remarkable. And, while there have been setbacks, too – most notably the 5-0 Ashes whitewash and his determination to continue as ODI captain long after it had become apparent that it was time to depart – the cheers with which he is greeted at grounds around the world suggest he remains hugely popular with the majority of England’s supporters.
He may never have been the most astute tactician or eloquent orator, but he has been decent and hard-working and, for a couple of years, presided over a period of chaos (some of which may well have been of his own making) in his team and around the ECB with a calm determination that helped some talented young players find their feet in Test cricket. You will not hear a word against him from many of his team-mates past or present; though, yes, there are one or two notable exceptions.
Either way, this will not be the end of the Cook story. There is no indication that he intends to step down as a player – quite the contrary; he is expected to relish a return to the ranks freed from the burden of leadership – and, aged 32, there is no reason he cannot add substantially to that tally of 11,057 Test runs.