NO ONE who saw Alastair Cook’s haunted expression at the end of the India series would have been remotely surprised by his decision to stand down yesterday as England Test captain.
Seven weeks after his side slumped to a 4-0 defeat, Cook predictably fell on his sword.
A quiet period of reflection before making the decision was consistent with the character of a man who led England in much the same way as he bats – with due care and attention.
Cook consulted those closest to him to confirm what he already knew inside – that his race was run.
In truth, it was probably run even before England were sliced to ribbons on the sub-continent.
That tour began amid comments from Cook that suggested he was already considering his future.
“Deep down, I don’t know how much longer I am going to carry on,” he said in a magazine interview. “It could be two months, it could be a year.”
In an ideal world, Cook, who subsequently backtracked by putting forward the time-honoured claim that his words were “taken out of context”, would have wanted to continue as captain until at least next winter’s Ashes series.
However, in a world inhabited by Virat Kohli, that was a wish too far as he found his appetite systematically crushed by the India captain and his vibrant side.
Inevitably, whenever one king departs and another awaits coronation, with Yorkshire’s Joe Root expected to be crowned later this month, all manner of eulogies attend the outgoing leader, with criticism diluted or temporarily suspended.
Team-mates and opponents alike rushed to pay tribute to Cook on social media (ironic, given that Cook shuns it like the plague), while many pundits were gushing in their praise.
Although neither a natural leader nor a great tactician, Cook was a competent and often highly successful captain, well-liked and respected by his team-mates, and he won 24 of 59 Tests in charge.
Cook led England to two Ashes triumphs and to series victories in India and South Africa, an outstanding achievement.
However, he suffered 22 Test defeats and some shattering lows, notably the 5-0 Ashes whitewash in 2013-14, which was nearly followed by another in India.
In many ways, Cook’s four years as captain were, for him, not unlike Dickens’s “the best of times, the worst of times”.
He came under intense pressure during the summer of 2014, in particular, having played an influential role in the controversial sacking of Kevin Pietersen after the Ashes whitewash, only to rise to great heights again in 2015 when he reclaimed the Ashes.
One thing that always impressed was Cook’s ambassadorial skills and the way that he conducted himself off the field.
Lesser men would have crumbled amid the weight of criticism he received at various times – much of it, incidentally, piled on by former players now quick to praise him after his departure – and he always faced his accusers in the eye.
It is debatable, indeed, whether an England captain has ever had to deal with more criticism than Cook due to the pervasive presence of social media.
But Cook somehow had a way of blotting it all out, just as he blots out extraneous thoughts while batting.
As England’s highest Test run-scorer, Cook, 32, still has plenty to offer, although he will realise that he is no longer guaranteed a place now that he is not in charge and that he will have to justify his inclusion like anyone else.
Relinquishing the captaincy, however, might be just what he needs to get back to doing what he has always done best – scoring large quantities of runs, currently 11,057 at Test level.
Attention turns as to who will replace him, with Root considered the next cab off the rank and surely the only viable candidate.
Although England will go through the proper process of considering all possibilities, it would be a major surprise if the Yorkshireman was not appointed, with Ben Stokes, perhaps, installed as his deputy.
Some will worry whether it is too soon for 26-year-old Root, or whether it will adversely affect his batting.
However, the responsibility of leadership does not appear to have unduly affected Kohli, Steve Smith or Kane Williamson, with whom Root rests in the pantheon of the world’s best batsmen.
Just as an accepted tenet of law is that a man is innocent until proved guilty, so Root should be assumed capable until shown to be otherwise.