The trial of Alistair Cook as captain has been long and drawn out. So far there have been more heart-breaking lows than self- assuring highs for Cook and his men. The 1-0 home series loss to Sri Lanka has only increased the pressure on the left handed opener to resign his captaincy. England have yet again lost a series that they were not meant to lose. The tests against Sri Lanka were supposed to be a warm-up for the five-match series that awaits against India.
The new era of English cricket has started, as the unwaveringly depressing Bob Willis said, “with a train crash.” It would be hard to disagree. For some people the reason for this failure is Alistair Cook. His perceived weak leadership, natural conservatism and dearth of runs have led to much of the press calling for his head. However, for me, this would only exacerbate the problem. And while I don’t advocate the unquestioning support that Paul Downton seems to champion, I firmly believe that Cook has a huge part to play in the future of English cricket and can help get it back on track.
Scapegoating Alistair cook for the England team’s failings right now seems fashionable and easy. But it is undeniable that he has a fantastically hard job on his hands. Of the eleven that started the first test in Brisbane, only six remain, with one of them- Matt Prior fighting for his own place in the side. England have a new coach in Peter Moores and a new cricketing overlord in the undesirable Paul Downton. This is all while Cook himself is going through a poor period with the bat.
In the Sri Lanka series Cook was wielding a new bowling attack desperately short of wicket taking ability. No front line spinner and a half fit Stuart Broad were compounded by a debutant who struggled to make an impact. The tiring war horse Anderson aided solely by Liam Plunkett were relied upon to take the brunt of the Sri Lankan wickets.
All great captains have a powerful bowling attack behind them. Mike Brearly had Botham and Willis in their prime, and Vaughan commanded what was arguably England’s greatest pace attack, with Flintoff, Harmison, Jones and Hoggard all on song during the 2005 ashes series. It is worth baring this in mind when analysing the recent loss.
For much of the series it was a tale of two captains. Angelo Mathews was at the top of his game; in total command of his troops and with the ability to make the right call at the right time. Mark Butcher commented that Mathews had “the happy knack of getting everything right” and it is difficult to argue with this assessment. It was Mathew’s astute bowling change at the death that ultimately handed Sri Lanka the series victory at Headingley. Mathews’ glorious success was counter balanced by Alistair Cook, who remains woefully out of form and seemed unable to make the right decision at a couple of crucial junctures.
Captaincy is something that is by and large learned, however. Not everyone can pop out of the womb a fully-fledged Mike Brearly. You have to learn from mistakes in order to improve. It is worth noting that Mathews, hero of this series and the man who seems to get everything right was once himself the villain.
In the third test away to Pakistan earlier this year, Mathew’s negativity and conservatism earned him the scorn of the media worldwide. Cricinfo went as far to say that the Sri Lankans “did not just lose a test match in Sharjah…(they) lost the cricket world’s respect.” Mathews learnt from this mistake, and is now the omnipotent hero that he is today.
However, he did not achieve this transformation alone. He was backed by the Sri Lankan set up and supported by the two most experienced and knowledgeable cricketers in the world, Sangakarra and Jayawardene. It was noted on commentary just how much of an influence the two had over the team, with the latter directing the fielders in the ring and initiating the verbal assault on Joe Root in the second innings.
For a young captain this sort of support is invaluable and provided a safety net for when Mathews incorrectly pursued a particular line of attack.
The contrast is stark to the England camp where Cook has no such support. Senior players in the team seemed happy to idly sit by as Cook made decisions. No one challenged him when he made the mistake of setting defensive fields to Mathews on day four at Headingley, despite the fact that he directly consulted both Broad and Anderson in the decision making process. England are a young team, with a young captain under pressure, they need some of their senior players to step up and take responsibility, not shy away and leave Cook to make every decision by himself.
Perhaps the biggest talking point regarding Cook’s captaincy in the Sri Lanka series was his inability to declare late on day four at lords. A couple of wickets in that evening session would have opened the game up for an England victory and many believe Cook’s men had accumulated more than enough runs by 5 pm on day four to ensure defeat wasn’t an option. The fact is we narrowly drew and had we declared earlier we would have won but Alistair Cook was nonetheless justified in his decision to bat Sri Lanka completely out of the game.
Firstly the lord’s pitch was extremely flat and England didn’t have a spinner in the side. In the back of Cook’s mind would have been the Middlesex vs Yorkshire game at lords earlier in the year, where Chris Rogers took on the best bowling side in the country to lead Middlesex to the third highest run chase in the history of the county championship scoring 472 in the fourth innings at a run rate of 4.6. Sri Lanka are a team that can boast two of the highest runs scorers in test history while the England bowling attack was looking decidedly fragile. Broad was essentially injured and not bowling near his best, there was no spinner and Chris Jordan was on debut.
In two match series, ensuring you don’t lose the first game if there is any element of doubt is a frequently used tactic. It is easy to look back retrospectively at Cooks decision and pin point that as the moment we lost the series, but if you do that you are displaying a naïve understanding of the sport and are being unduly harsh, so shame on you.
For me, Alistair Cook’s greatest mistake in the series that may well have cost us the series was his insistence on setting defensive fields to Mathews on day four. It allowed Mathews to farm the strike, and bat with the tail to put Sri Lanka into a position of dominance. Cook didn’t react quickly enough when it became obvious that the plan wasn’t working and it ultimately cost us as Mathews went about constructing a remarkable innings.
Cook has to take the brunt of the blame for the mistake, but he did not make it alone and Anderson and Broad between them should have realised the folly of what they were doing and voiced their concerns to the captain.
Cook’s mistake almost mirrors what Mathews did in the UAE against Pakistan and if Mathews can pull off a magical turnaround that sees him lauded as someone who never makes a mistake, then I have to believe Cook can too. His captaincy in general was certainly more aggressive during this series than the ashes. On the last day at lords he was inventive with his field placement, and challenged Sri Lankan batsman to play differently and second guess themselves. Had Nuwan Pradeep not edged the second last ball of the day into his pads, we might well have praised Cook for his initiative. Instead, all that will be overshadowed by the declaration controversy and the one day at Headingley where his negativity was exploited by one of the great Sri Lankan innings.
It is an unfortunate truth that the well of potential England captains is running pretty dry. Even if Alistair Cook was removed from office it still wouldn’t solve the problem of who else to skipper the side. Of the other senior players the only two potential candidates are Ian Bell and Stuart broad. However even these two are far from convincing choices. Ian Bell is a quiet, reserved character with the propensity to punctuate every sentence with the word “obviously.” While Broad is a looser character, prone to a rash statement and an injury. There is no point bringing someone in who annually misses test matches with injuries, nor is there any point bringing someone in clearly uncomfortable with the spotlight. Cook has to be given time and support from senior players, it could only take one good innings in the first test for him to re-find his confidence. This confidence could inspire control and composure in his captaincy and set the England side on the road to recovery.
For these reasons I am going to back Captain Cook, only time will tell if I am right, for the sake of English cricket, I hope I am.