What a difference four years make. In the winter of 2012-13, then-new captain Alastair Cook led England to a stunning 2-1 series victory over India on their home soil, the first time England had accomplished such a feat in 28 years. This winter, however, a team without the likes of the retired Graeme Swann, and the exiled Monty Panesar and Kevin Pietersen, fell to an ignominious 4-0 defeat against the same foe that has left many, including the man himself, questioning Alastair Cook’s position as captain.
So what changed? Where did the team of four years ago succeed where the current side has failed? The most obvious answer is the batting. In the first test in Rajkot, England performed admirably with the bat and certainly held the upper hand in a close draw with scores of 537 – including centuries from Joe Root, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes – in the first innings and 260-3 declared, including a century from Captain Cook. In the second, however, the tourists regularly collapsed in a fashion that most observers had hoped was left with the England side of the late 1990s. There were collapses of 5-80 and 10-83 in the second test in Visakhapatnam and 4-87 and 6-107 in the third at Mohali. England was bowled out for 195 in the second innings of the fourth test and lost all 10 wickets for just 104 runs in the second innings in the final test to seal a 4-0 whitewash for the Indians.
It is obviously very difficult, if not impossible, to win test matches in the subcontinent with such pitiful batting performances. For perspective, in the final test in Chennai, the same pitch on which England scored 477 and 207 yielded 759-7 dec for the Indians, including a triple century for Karun Nair. So why the collapses? I think the issue lies with the mentality of England’s batsmen.
Ever since Brendan McCullum’s New Zealand side visited England in the summer of 2015, bringing their style of pedal-to-the-metal attacking cricket, the England setup has tried to implement what they would describe as “playing without fear.” The theory is that each player should be able to “express themselves” without fear of repercussion in the dressing room if it goes wrong. This can work, especially in the one-day game in which England are increasingly looking like contenders. It has proven successful in the test arena as well, the first test of the series is a good example of this, but there is a time and a place for such aggressive batting.
While none of the pitches England played on in India turned as much as those which they encountered in Bangladesh, they weren’t roads either. These were not pitches on which you would expect a batsman to come dancing down the pitch to a spinner on the fifth day and launch him into the stands. Only this was what Moeen Ali did. On 44 late on the final day of the last test, with England struggling to rescue a draw, Ali decided that the best course of action was to attempt what was described on ESPN’s cricinfo website as a “revolting heave” and was caught at mid-on. Sure, had the ball gone the distance we would have been hailing a fine fifty in a rear-guard action, but this is beside the point. England coach Trevor Bayliss might want his batsmen to play with no fear, but not without brains.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. 20-year-old Haseeb Hammed looks the real deal as Cook’s opening partner and despite going home early following a hand injury, with which he still managed a stellar 57* in an attempt to rescue the third test, I fully expect him to reclaim his opening spot ahead of his replacement. Keaton Jennings, centurion opening on debut, will likely move to three, with Joe Root moving back to his preferred position at four.
The batting cannot take the full blame, however. The bowlers, especially the four spinners who were used at some point in the series, didn’t come away scot-free. There were problems from the start, with the unintelligible selection of 39-year-old Gareth Batty for the touring party. He played one game, bowled fewer than 20 overs and failed to take a wicket. The other two who have played as the “third spinner” in the series, Zafar Ansari and Liam Dawson, didn’t fare much better; they averaged 54.33 and 64.50 in their two and one matches played respectively.
But what is most disheartening is the performances of the lead spinners, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali. They averaged 37.43 and 64.90 respectively, while the lead Indian spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, averaged 30.25 and 25.84.
What of the captain? Cook publicly stated towards the end of the series he had “questions” about his future and that his heir apparent Joe Root was “ready” for the role. Even following a meeting with ECB director of cricket and predecessor in the role Andrew Strauss, he has failed to come to a decision.
Why the wait? The most pressing reason is time. With the Champions Trophy in England during the early summer, England does not play another test match until July, so it’s not as if the issue is pressing.
He likely also does not want to distract new father Joe Root from the ongoing one-day matches in India with all the questions being appointed England test captain would bring. The decision must certainly be made before the summer tests, however; if Root is to lead the side, he certainly needs the experience of leading the side against South Africa and the West Indies before he is thrown into the cauldron of the Ashes this coming winter.
Joe Root has served admirably as vice-captain for a while, so there is little to worry about regarding his successor. I believe that Alastair Cook’s future in the side is to stand at first slip and score mountains of runs opening the batting, his mind clear of the worries that come with leading the side.
Sure, he would lead as a senior player in the dressing room, but the weight of the ubiquitous press conferences and interviews would be off his shoulders, leaving them unburdened to play his world-renowned cut shot for many years to come.