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)