Root is currently taking a break from cricket in the wake of England’s series loss to West Indies, having overseen a run of one Test victory out of 17 since February 2021. And Cook – who is gearing up for his 20th season of county cricket with Essex – knows better than most how his predecessor will currently be feeling, having come through his own torrid year as captain in 2014, when England’s 5-0 whitewash against Australia gave way to the controversial sacking of Kevin Pietersen.
“The amount of runs that Joe Root has scored is an incredible effort,” Cook said. “I really struggled in 2014, scoring runs with that KP stuff going on the background, that really affected me. For him to be able to handle that and not let his personal performance go, that’s an unbelievable sign.
“He’s England’s most complete batsman I’ve ever seen, but if [juggling the captaincy] was going to affect him, it would have affected him in the last eight months or so,” Cook added. “To score 1700 runs [in 2021], 1200 more than anyone else, it’s laughable, and normally it’s untenable to do that. But the way he’s scored those runs, and singlehandedly carried England’s batting, is an extraordinary effort, with all the other stuff going on.”
Nevertheless, Cook also warned that the singlemindedness that has allowed Root to block out the criticism and concentrate on his run-scoring could also be a double-edged sword when it comes to recognising when and if his tenure as captain has run its course.
Writing in his Sunday Times column, Cook had praised Root’s determination to “get England’s sinking ship … floating again”. However, having spent the winter as an at-times outspoken pundit for BT Sport, Cook also admits his concerns that the players will stop listening to their captain’s belief in the team’s progression if – as seemed to be the case in the immediate aftermath of their ten-wicket loss in Grenada – it seems too far removed from the reality of their performances.
“I am a bit bored of all the positive chat, because I don’t think it was a sense of reality in that changing room,” Cook said. “All the noise was that ‘we’ve turned a corner and our attitude is brilliant’. Some of that stuff should have been a given.
“And it looked like a dig at the Australia tour, that their attitude there wasn’t great,” Cook added, after a raft of senior players were dropped for the West Indies – most notably James Anderson and Stuart Broad, but also Rory Burns and Dawid Malan.
“Actually, from watching, I never saw them throw the towel in. They just weren’t good enough to compete, and their batting under pressure folded, and the same thing happened in Grenada.
“I compare it to Toto Wolff and the Mercedes [Formula One] team,” Cook continued. “They’ve been the outstanding team for the last eight years, and they’ve obviously designed a car which isn’t quite as quick as their rivals, and [Wolff] comes out after two races, and says ‘that’s totally unacceptable’.
“Now that’s not slagging off his team. It’s just the reality they’re in, and I’m sure he would have said ‘we will be good enough to turn it round’. But some of the stuff coming out [from England], with all this positivity. We’ve just lost again, we’ve won one in 17. That’s the reality, and it hurts. But if you own that, as a side, that could be a step forward.”
Cook, however, also recognises there are extraordinary external circumstances dominating England’s current agenda, and that nothing significant can change within the existing set-up until a raft of permanent appointments are made at the ECB.
“It’s maddening to think that a company as big as the ECB has got no chairman, no director of cricket and no coach,” Cook said, following the departure of Ian Watmore before Christmas and the sackings of Ashley Giles and Chris Silverwood after the Ashes. “How it’s got there shows where English cricket is at this point. It’s an amazing challenge for whoever does get that job to turn it around because there’s been some dark days for English cricket.
“Maybe dark isn’t the right word, because actually there’s a huge amount of talent around and I think everyone can see that. But you can’t have no coach, no director of cricket and no chairman – if you’re running a business that doesn’t seem to make much sense. So it’s an exciting time. You’re actually thinking if the next appointment is a good appointment, it’s a total and utter fresh start because that’s what English cricket needs.”
With that in mind, there remains an awkward piece of unresolved business for whoever does take over, given that Anderson and Broad, 39 and 35 respectively, have both made it clear they are not ready to accept their time in the England team is over just yet – and that, with the possible exception of Saqib Mahmood, few of the seamers selected for the Caribbean tour enhanced their claims to be long-term replacements.
Cook himself bowed out of Test cricket on the ultimate high in 2018, with a matchwinning century in his final Test innings against India. But he recognises that not everyone gets the chance to go out on their own terms, even when their records and reputation merit a perfect send-off.
“Absolutely they [deserve it], but professional sport doesn’t always work like you want it to,” Cook said. “We know they are legends of the game. They’re legends of English cricket, they’re right up there with the best bowlers ever to play the game.
“Hopefully they do get a chance [for a send-off], but tell that to Jimmy, he’ll slap your hand off and say ‘I’m not thinking about retiring, I’m still playing until I’m 75’. He’s thinking, I want to get back in that Test side and prove that they shouldn’t have left me out.
“But it makes it an interesting summer doesn’t it? Do they play or who is the new line-up? Are they good enough? Absolutely. Do they still warrant their places? Yeah, you’d say so with the quality they’ve got. But this is where England need to be clear.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket