England captain Alastair Cook (R) and teammate James Anderson walk off the pitch after defeating India in the fourth Test match between England and India, 9 August. Photo: Getty
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The true meaning of success – and why we should never listen to the impatient mob

After England’s defeat by India in the second Test at Lord’s, almost every leading voice in English cricket called for Alastair Cook to be sacked as captain. 

It takes bravery, in a crisis, not to make a decision. In How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman thanks his mentor for the memorable advice: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

After England’s defeat by India in the second Test at Lord’s, almost every leading voice in English cricket called for Alastair Cook to be sacked as captain. This quorum included the former England captains Mike Atherton, Michael Vaughan and Geoffrey Boycott. The combined wisdom of English cricket’s top table was reinforced by a shouty strand of public opinion, still smarting from the departure of its hero Kevin Pietersen (who also called for Cook to resign).

So the selectors and the England and Wales Cricket Board deserve special praise for the constancy they showed in sticking with Cook. They had to be resolute against two different constituencies: the tribal elders, chanting for change with the gloom and authority of a Greek chorus, and the electronic mob of social media.

There are several wider lessons to be learned from the captaincy furore (now happily subsided after a splendid England victory in the subsequent match in Southampton). First, if all options for change are unsatisfactory, take none of them. Many pundits called for Cook to be sacked but were unable to propose an alternative who would strengthen the team. Who should captain England instead? “Anybody!” came the reply. It did not sound like a good trade.

Second, we forget that many successful performers took a long time to become established, nearly getting sacked en route. Observing success plays tricks with our memories; once it has happened, it seems inevitable. The locus classicus is Alex Ferguson and Manchester United’s fateful FA Cup tie at Nottingham in January 1990 that saved his managerial skin – but the phenomenon is not unknown in cricket. Allan Border, the captain who built the great Australian dynasty of the 1990s, had a disappointing string of early results, including a heavy Test series defeat to England in 1985.

Artistic success can also rely on the faith of employers in the context of troubling results. Hilary Mantel, now feted as a double winner of the Man Booker Prize and whose books are making a tidy profit for HarperCollins, first published several books that lost money. They were encouragingly reviewed and admired by her fans. From a narrow business perspective, however, Mantel only became a major “success” with the publication of Wolf Hall. If Mantel, her agent or her publisher had been guided by sales evidence alone, her later triumphs would have remained locked in her private imaginative world, or unread in a desk drawer. “Track record” – whether Cook’s seven defeats in nine Test matches, or Mantel’s sequence of books that stayed in the red – may be evidence of something. But it does not predict the future.

Finally, the true nature of public opinion is easy to misunderstand. It is a serious mistake to think that we can measure the views of the majority whose opinions seldom register on social media. Early this summer, this column drew attention to how 20 per cent of the comments on the Guardian’s website come from just 0.0037 per cent of its declared monthly audience. In tracking the views of “the public”, we overestimate the representativeness of a tiny minority.

That point was underlined during the victorious third Test in Southampton, in which Cook made 165 runs (only once out) and captained a perfect England performance. The crowd took the opposite view to the newspapers that claim to represent England fans. Cook was cheered all the way to the middle at the toss, then greeted by a standing ovation when he returned to the pavilion 48 not out at lunch on the first day. The England coach, Peter Moores, conceded that he had never seen Cook more moved than after that spontaneous act of collective support. Another standing ovation followed when he walked off, having made 95. The atmosphere of the post-match victory ceremony was driven by deep respect for the England captain.

All of this warmth and considered hope (crowds do not encourage players whom they have given up on) stand in marked contrast to the anger that sustains easy headlines and Twitter storms. Yet who better represents the entire community of English cricket: a social media poll or the fans who lifted the England captain with their hearts and their applause?

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers, under a fern, make the field ring with their importunate clink,” Edmund Burke pointed out, “while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”

We should contrast the mob’s approach with how real success is achieved. The mob ignores the structures and culture that underpin lasting success, focusing only on the cult of a redemptive leader, the man who – it is supposed – will cure everything just by clapping his hands with conviction.

The mob listens to people whom other people listen to, ignoring whether the speaker has sound judgement, let alone a history of being right. The mob forgets that it first railed against the same leaders it now romanticises.

The mob gives voice and authority to those it once dispossessed, so long as the target is today’s status quo: its enemy’s enemy is its friend. The mob is not concerned with improvement, only with change, as though the two were the same thing.

If Alastair Cook becomes a great England captain, we should remember what the mob said – and credit the people who resisted it. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

Photo: Getty Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here