Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook walk off the field at close of play

It's all gone a bit dark and ominous for Alastair Cook

© Getty Images


Is cricket a team game?

As they say on Facebook, it's complicated

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan  |  

Some elementary questions are the hardest to answer. Like when Gueorgui, a Bulgarian-American friend, asked: "Is cricket a team game? Or individual?"

I wish I could have explained the complexity involved; how despite coaches, administrators and players reiterating that there is "no I in team", cricket can be thought of as a series of confrontations between individuals; how every delivery can be visualised as a curious dance-off between bowler and batsman; and how each run, each wicket, each century and each five-wicket haul is as much a celebration of individual achievement as it is a fragment of collective attainment.

Had Gueorgui been well versed in how cricket is organised, I would have explained the hypocrisy inherent in the game's ecosystem: how players get selected to teams almost exclusively on their ability to bat, bowl or field, but once they are part of a professional set-up, run the risk of being denigrated for not fitting into a certain team culture; how it is not enough to be a match-winner but necessary to adjust to a specific team ethos that has been imposed by a coach or administrator, often with no basis.

Further, since Gueorgui had no idea about the make-up of cricket teams, I could not spell out the role of a captain. Soccer, baseball, basketball and American Football - sports he follows - see no need for an astute on-field leader, and he might have been puzzled to hear that in cricket the captain, not coach, is entrusted with reconciling individual temperament and aspiration with the team's common purpose.

If only I could have explained how captains often grapple with the dilemma posed by this intrinsic dichotomy. And how few captains have overseen as protracted a saga between the individual and collective as Alastair Cook has over the last three years, a period that - to borrow from Dickens - has seen the best of times and the worst. There have been a slew of batting records, a historic series win in India, and an Ashes triumph, but also an Ashes whitewash, a torrid batting slump, and a sacking from the ODI captaincy. He has been called a "gutless weasel" (Piers Morgan) and "probably the greatest England cricketer" (Matt Prior). He has been accused of being "up his own arse" (Geoffrey Boycott) and hailed as "the best opening batsman in the world" (Geoffrey Boycott).

The roller coaster has juddered along. And in our cover story this month, Andrew Miller tries to make sense of the turbulence by turning a wide-angle lens on Cook's career, guiding us through the early days in Essex, the steely hundred on Test debut in Nagpur, the "passive-aggressive persecution of the Aussies" at the Gabba in 2010, and the moral fibre that turned a beatific choirboy into England's greatest run machine.

Kaneria has no team any more. He trains on his own, practising with no team-mates in sight. I can imagine him all alone, bounding in, bowling at three stumps, ball after ball, hoping to find a way back

Counterbalancing these staggering achievements is the perception of Cook as an establishment man and his dithering, at least publicly, over the Pietersen schism - especially jarring given how vital Cook's batting partnerships with KP were to some of England's glorious victories. "Their ethics and philosophies may have been as immiscible as oil and water," writes Miller, "but the chemistry on those occasions when they hit it off was unforgettable."

With Pietersen jettisoned, Cook faces his biggest test, against a side skilled in the art of gamesmanship, aka mental disintegration, aka telling batsmen to get ready for a broken f****** arm. The Australian fast men will likely single him out ("Cut the head and the body dies," as many great bowlers have said) and the wicketkeeper and slips will inform him of his parentage. Some of the Australians will be reprimanded, some criticised, but most of the sledging will be consigned to the play-hard-but-fair-like-a-true-blue-Aussie dustbin.

Exploring Australia's recent on-field behaviour, and by extension the perception of Australian manliness, is a cracking essay by Geoff Lemon. In the grand sweep of Australian cricket history - from Warwick Armstrong downing double whiskeys, to David Boon's beer-drinking record, to the outpouring of grief following Phillip Hughes' death - Lemon tries to unravel a knotty question: why are so many Australian cricketers consumed by notions of masculinity?

It is a question Danish Kaneria may or may not have pondered during his nine Tests against Australia. But for now, as Osman Samiuddin finds when he meets him in Karachi, Kaneria has more pressing matters to consider. Like if he will play organised cricket again.

Kaneria is a man caught in the crosshairs of history. He is a Hindu in an Islamic republic. And he has been banned for life for his involvement in spot-fixing. To be acutely marginalised is hard enough. Now he is exiled.

"His religion did not prevent him from flourishing as a cricketer," writes Samiuddin. "But I cannot bring myself to accept he will face the same experiences as other Pakistani cricketers who have been found guilty, or are yet to accept what they did."

Kaneria has no team any more. He trains on his own, practising with no team-mates in sight. I can imagine him all alone, bounding in, bowling at three stumps, ball after ball, hoping to find a way back. Some day.

Is cricket a team game? Or individual?

Gueorgui waited patiently.

"It's a team game," I said hesitantly. "But it's complicated."

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA