Alastair Cook, England captain, obviously
I have heard it said that the turning point for George Bush (the father) as US President was marked by the New York Times publishing his quotations verbatim: every stumble, stutter and malapropism .
George Bush Senior is the United States’ most recent single term president. A politician who failed to capitalise on the advantage of incumbency. Nine of the other 44 US Presidents served a term (or less in Gerald Ford’s case) but were defeated when running to retain office.
The significance of the New York Times’ treatment of Bush lies in its unusual failure to extend to Bush the exaggerated respect mainstream American media affords to its heads of state – past and present. The leader’s flawed diction, his struggles to articulate his position on matters of state were laid bare. Nobody speaks in the pristine sentences of newspaper reports, but journalists polish up what they hear: removing redundancies and false starts, adding punctuation and ignoring fillers and non-lexical vocables (uhhh, um, etc).
Alastair Cook is another leader who, in public, is not a fluent speaker. He doesn’t trip over his words in the manner of Bush. Cook’s shortcomings as interviewee are mundanity, cliche and evasion. ‘Obviously’ is the verbal equivalent of his clip off his pads, sprinkled through his pronouncements in the way that legside stroke is found with high frequency in his innings. Cook doesn’t think what he is saying is self-evident; uttering ‘obviously’ just gives him a moment to think, a ‘noisy pause’ and a way of acknowledging the sense of the question he answers.
Just how much polishing do the media give the England captain when reporting on his interviews? On 1 May, Cook was interviewed on Sky Sports News about the decision to remove his mentor, Graham Gooch, from the post of England batting coach. Cook says:
Y’know, it’s obviously been a very tough decision for eh me, personally ehh when you’re discussing such a great man, and a guy who’s given obviously me so much in terms of my career. We started working together at at 17, ehhm all the way through Essex and obviously in the last 4 or 5, 4 and a half years is it for England. So it’s been an incredibly tough decision to be ehh to be to ehh make, to be part of that decision process ehmm but we just felt it was time that we just needed a bit of freshening up ehm yes it’s certainly it’s happened on the playing staff playing side of it and obviously the coaches as well. Y’know I think we’ve got to remember the good stuff with Goochy and thank him for all his hard work. I’ve never been, I’ve never been part of ehh anyone, sorry any coach who’s worked as hard as him, y’know, not only with the England players but also when he went back to Essex as well.
The Sky Sports News website carried a piece that reported Cook saying to their reporter the following:
Firstly, we need to thank Goochie. Obviously he’s been an absolute legend, not only for my game but for all of our games over the last five years.
“We all hold him in such high regard, have a huge amount of respect for him and what he’s done for English cricket over a huge amount of time not only as a player but as a coach. We just felt it’s time to freshen things up and move on.
It reads like an extract of an interview, but it’s quite different to the words Cook used in the Sky video. That’s probably because Cook read or issued a press release separate to the interview. Just possibly, it’s journalistic license, condensing and smoothing out Cook’s comments.
An England cricket captain is unlike a US President on so many counts. He doesn’t get the exaggerated respect of his domestic media, for a start. Nor is there the expectation of longevity or advantage of incumbency, particularly when judged by England cricket’s highest honour: being selected as the Ashes tour captain. A cricketer is appointed to that role once every four years (with some exceptions) – the same frequency as US presidential elections. 43 full tours of Australia have been undertaken by England. Only four captains have served a second term: Arthur Shrewsbury (1884/85 and 1886/87), AE Stoddart (1894/95 and 1897/98), JWHT Douglas (1911/12 and 1920/21) and Mike Brearley (1978/79 and 1979/80); Douglas being the only captain to do so with four or more years separating his assignments – nine years in his case! So Cook leading a second Ashes touring team in 2017/18 would be a rare achievement.
At the moment, it appears that Cook, despite the heavy defeat in Australia, the post-tour shedding of coaches and star players, and his own rigid approach to captaincy, is accepted as skipper by the England cricket media. Should England struggle to defeat Sri Lanka and India this summer and Cook not score heavily, it might be worth checking how literally the press is covering his quotes as an early indicator that faith in his leadership is ebbing away.
Bush lost the 1992 election to the silver tongued Bill Clinton. It wasn’t, however, the President’s opponent’s greater facility for public speaking that won him the election. Clinton’s winning strategy was summed up in the phrase, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ He based his campaign on telling people relentlessly what his research told him was important to them. Here, perhaps there is a lesson for Cook. Team ethics and new eras mean little unless the team’s ‘economy’ is functioning – taking wickets and scoring runs. The leader who focuses on the changing room ambiance, and appears to be making decisions that compromise the performance on the field, has the hallmark of a single-term President.
Footnote 1: I cannot evidence the New York Times’ treatment of Bush. I was a graduate in communication studies in the US at the time and I remember my classmates discussing the significance of the newspaper’s move. It was the sort of ‘communication’ story we would have picked over with delight.