There aren’t many jobs in the world where, every day you go to work, you find yourself splashed all over the national press. It is a dubious privilege usually reserved for the most senior of global politicians. Newspapers report, almost every day, what Donald Trump or Theresa May or Angela Merkel say. Their words and actions are debated in endless column inches, often with very blunt criticism and regularly from wildly judgemental viewpoints. But there is only one job I can think of where you actually get given a number next to your name in the national press every day you go to work. One of my brothers, who opened the batting for Essex (for a few largely glory free years), knew this feeling. He used to say that cricket was the only job he could think of where you had a score publicly next to your name in the national press every day you went to work. This talk is not a story about cricket per se, but instead about leadership. Alastair Cook has spent the past 14 years with numbers displayed publicly against his name. Imagine the pressure that places upon somebody. For the past 5 years, he has not only had numbers next to his name, but also a letter – W, D or L – win, lose or draw – as captain of the national team in one of its main national sports. In the age of instant reporting, of social media trolls, of fierce competiveness for catchy news comment, of disregard for the person behind the story, of vicious and anonymous attacks from the comfort of a computer screen, and less anonymous, but no less stinging, attacks in published sporting biographies, I find this quite simply remarkable. How on earth can a man take that much public criticism, day in day out, and still keep coming back for more, still keep leading from the front, still keep his eyes on what matters?
Alastair Cook has been a remarkable leader and one of whom this school should be, and is, immensely proud. One should remember that his years as England captain started only 10 years out of school. 5 years on from that, Mark Nicholas, a much older man, current cricket writer and past cricketer himself takes up the story:
“If just a few words were used to describe Alastair Cook in his role as England’s captain, “honesty”, “integrity” and “resolve” might lead the way. In this age of unflagging self-promotion, he has remained private and discreet, whispering not a word of his own journey or, more particularly, of the hurdles that have made it more difficult and emotionally draining than anyone on the outside could possibly imagine.
On a personal level, he keeps clear of social media, but the general noise is unavoidable and he has frequently been aghast at the vitriol pumped his way. During the early part of the summer of 2014, when his team was losing matches it shouldn’t have, the freewheeling and generally irresponsible criticism all but finished him off. Somehow he found the strength to carry on, displaying perhaps the most impressive of his abilities – where he rolls up his sleeves and simply gets on with the job.”
Other qualities attributed to Alastair Cook are an extreme sense of duty, of decency and yet of competitiveness and even ruthlessness. He took the tough decisions, rather than evade them, not least the decision to drop the team’s best batsman for ever because of his detrimental effect on team morale. This decision to drop Kevin Pietersen was one over which he admitted himself that he barely slept for six months.
At the heart of a lot of this was sheer bloody-mindedness; you do not captain for more tests than any other Englishman or score more runs than any other Englishmen without a certain stubbornness and a rock solid strength of character. “I’m an endurance man”, (Cook said) “there are no fast-twitch fibres in my body. I’m unbeaten at the bleep test in 12 years. Don’t ask me for speed; ask me for endurance.” A final quality, not unlinked to this, was his adaptability. He was not always good at this, but he learnt it. When things did not go his way, such as losing the one-day captaincy, he simply learn to be better; he changed the style of his test captaincy and thrived on it.
Yet in amongst all this duty, extreme hard work, modesty, determination, adaptability and resilience, there was a secret, the secret of perspective. He had the precious ability to get away from it all; to switch off; to go back to his farm; to appreciate a completely different life; in short, to have something else. It is not dissimilar to our advice to you all around exam time; don’t give up other things you like doing. You need breaks; and Alastair Cook took them when he could. You need perspective. As he said himself: “In the end, playing for England means very little if you don’t see the rest of the world around you. I suppose it is why I get so wound up by prima donnas and by arrogance. I like perspective and the farm gives you that. Whatever else, come rain or shine, the farmers meet for a beer at the local on a Friday evening. It signs off the week in a communal way that says we take care of our own.”
The writer Mark Nicholas ends by saying that when all is said and done, “I shall think of his dignity under provocation and his kindness away from the spotlight. The team he now passes on have a strong moral code and a real sense of what is right and wrong in the world.”
This is a lovely tribute. As Bedfordians, it is hard to imagine who could better live out the four core values of this school; it is tempting, knowing my predecessor Mr Moule, to think that he even wrote them with Alastair Cook in mind. Responsibility: well, captaining England in full public view is the ultimate. Endeavour: you don’t score 11,000 test runs without it. Curiosity: to succeed, you have to be a student of your craft. Integrity: when all is ended, if you have kept your integrity, you have kept the most important thing of all. Interested in cricket or not, read about him, because Alastair Cook has been an example to us all.