Sport PAUL NEWMAN: Will Alastair Cook be forced to quit Essex?
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It was another demonstration of how he could easily still be opening the batting for an England Test side who have been unable to adequately replace him in the three years since his international retirement.
But Sir Alastair Cook’s sublime century for Essex against Surrey at the Oval this week may yet be his last because of an internal row that has been rumbling on at Chelmsford all season and shows no signs of abating.
It has hardly been a vintage campaign for a county who have again become accustomed to success, winning the Championship and Twenty20 Blast double two years ago and the inaugural Bob Willis Trophy amid the pandemic last year.
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And Essex’s domination so far of Division Two of this year’s conference Championship is merely confirmation of what might have been, had arguably still the best red-ball team in the country not under-performed in the early weeks of the season.
But an explanation may come from the behind-the-scenes battle involving former captain Ronnie Irani, new chief executive John Stephenson, coach Anthony McGrath and a group of senior players that, significantly, includes England’s record-breaking ex-captain.
All the indications this year, from their press day at Chelmsford onwards, suggested that Cook’s devotion to his county, which has seen him playing a leading role in those recent red-ball triumphs, would end with him playing on in 2022. But it is still not certain.
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It was the website Cricbuzz who revealed in August how Irani had been forced to stand down from his role as chairman of the Essex cricket committee because of complaints made by the coach and players, including Cook, Simon Harmer and Dan Lawrence.
Those players were unhappy about what they saw as too much interference from Irani, including his demand to hold an investigation into an alleged drinking culture at the club seemingly at the behest of former MCC cricket secretary and Essex all-rounder Stephenson.
The players, with the backing of a figure with the prestige and importance of Cook, got their way but it is Irani’s continuing presence on the general committee and the suggestion he wants to run for chairman next year that has seen the row continue.
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Now, World of Cricket understands, more talks are planned at Chelmsford over Irani’s future at the club and they could decide whether Cook signs the new contract on the table Essex dearly want him to.
Cook, 36 and as fit as ever, is clearly still one of the best batsmen in county cricket and could go on for some time yet. But the perfect timing over his England exit in 2018 shows he will not stick around unless he remains sure it is for the best.
His retirement now would be a sad way for one of the greatest of all England players to bow out so the stakes remain high at Chelmsford as the season fizzles out in disappointment.
Anyone still think that the final Test was not cancelled — or forfeited by India — at the last moment because of the IPL? Truly, it is an insult to all those denied a climax to what had been a compelling series to suggest anything otherwise. Only one thing that ECB chief executive Tom Harrison said, in comments that stretched credulity to breaking point in the aftermath of that sorry day in Manchester last Friday, was more extraordinary.
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Harrison, who introduced a new format in the Hundred this season on top of everything else, admitted what everyone in the game has long known — that there is far too much international and domestic cricket.
The question now is what, as one of the most powerful administrators in the world game, he is going to do about it. Don’t hold your breath for an outcome of anything other than what continues to make the most money.
The leadership of Division One of the Championship, the only one of the three divisions truly worth anything under this flawed conference system, has chopped and changed so much since its resumption this month it has sometimes appeared no county wants to win it.
But Lancashire and Hampshire stole a march on the rest on Tuesday with crucial wins over Somerset and Notts that gives them the edge going into next week’s last round.
Certainly the pressure is now on Warwickshire and Yorkshire to come out on top on the final day of their game at Edgbaston after Tuesday’s wash-out.
If weather affects that game again on Wednesday then all eyes will turn to the unlikely venue of Liverpool and Lancashire’s final game against Hampshire next Tuesday for what could be this year’s decider.
The Championship is still the one to win above all else in domestic cricket. At least a Lancashire triumph next week might be something of a consolation for the debacle of the abandoned final Test at Old Trafford.
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