Given the ECB’s fierce determination to persist with the Moores and Cook project, it comes as little surprise to see England’s opening batsman leading his side out at the Ageas Bowl in the third test against India.
The general public have expressed their opinion in no uncertain terms about Cook’s stewardship. Many have called for his head, while the more humane among us have politely asked for the Essex player’s resignation. Irrespective of the sport, the captain is always under scrutiny; the spotlight centres on him, particularly when results begin to turn against his troops. England were heavily shelled down under in a 5-0 whitewash against the Aussies, and artillery fire has continued to batter them ever since. A woeful run of Test match results since the summer of 2013 has seen England slip to 7 defeats, stutter to 3 draws and fail to win any matches against Australia, Sri Lanka and India.
The first of the complaints lodged against Cook’s captaincy is his tendency to take a reactive approach, rather than a proactive one, in the field. It has been largely speculated that were the selectors to hand over the reins to another leader, England’s tactical endeavours would not be compromised in any way. It would be difficult for anybody to describe Cook’s stewardship as “charismatic” or “dynamic”. Quietly standing at first slip while he hides away from the world’s glare behind his dark sunglasses, the skipper seems “pensive” at best. Rarely does his body language seem rousing, more often is the double-teapot hands-on-hips pose adopted as the game slowly but surely moves away from England. If the team have an opportunity to exert serious pressure on the opposition, it seems that this England side instinctively slip into defensive mode. Stuart Broad has recently revealed that he’s concerned about haemorrhaging runs when he storms into bowl, and this worry has been reflected in Cook’s field placings. There is a refusal to pack the slip corden and gully region to create catching opportunities. Instead, the sight of England’s opening bowlers having boundary riders at deep extra-cover leaves spectators tearing their hair out.
Then of course, there is the pressing issue of Cook’s plummeting form with the bat. In the days of old, the left hand opener would churn out runs for fun, helping himself to boundaries galore through mid-wicket, while occasionally smearing a short ball through point. He’s never been the most eye-catching of batsmen, but few have been more effective. He’s moved past Kevin Pietersen to become England’s 4th highest run scorer of all time in this morning’s session, and so has proved that he’s a fine international player. However, the corridor of uncertainty outside of his off-stump has proved his most recent Achilles heel. Such is the frequency of Cook’s nicking behind, or finding a slip fielder with his favoured outside edge, that people need not watch the game to discover how the captain is going to be dismissed. There was another heart in mouth moment as he found a meaningful edge that presented Ravi Jajeda with a simple chance before noon, but the skip was let off the hook with only 15 runs to his name. Cook has overcome a past habit of his weight falling towards the off-side to be a prime lbw candidate, but will the pressure of the captaincy distract him from rectifying the most recent problem with his batting?
Enough about Cook though. He is not the only senior player failing to produce the goods though. Ian Bell has endured a torrid time of late, scratching around for runs like a man on hot coals. When he first emerged onto the scene in 2004/5, Bell was targeted by the hostile Brett Lee, who’s fiery back of a length bowling had the Warwickshire player tied up in knots. This made the batsman keen to throw his hands at anything full, making him susceptible to a feather edge. Although Ishant Sharma is significantly slower than the express pace of Lee nine years on, Bell still looks as unconvincing against the aggressive bowlers. When England’s number four is in form, he’s arguably the most majestic player on the circuit. However, expose him to sustained pressure, and despite having accumulated a wealth of experience at the age of 32 now, many would expect Bell to crack. Averaging just 25 since last summer’s Ashes, a series wherein he starred, the aesthetically pleasing batsman is due big runs.
Should the top order get their act together – a job perhaps boosted by the inclusion of the extravagant but somewhat unpredictable Jos Buttler – the bowlers must back their efforts up. When England were the number one team in Test cricket, there was unwavering confidence in James Anderson and Stuart Broad ripping through their rivals. Despite having collected 600 wickets between them in the longer format of the game, they’re currently not working well in tandem. I have already alluded to Broad’s reluctance to pitch the ball up, and swing King Jimmy is suffering from a similar ailment. The first innings of the previous Test match at Lord’s epitomises the problem. Having won the toss and elected to bowl first, England were aided by a green surface and cloudy skies. The morning session was if not disastrous, quite simply not good enough. Taking three wickets in two hours was a poor return given the day’s conditions, with Anderson and Broad’s line and length far too erratic.
The problems are paramount for English cricket during this stage of transition from experience to youth. As Cook raises his bat to celebrate his fifty at Southampton, there may just be faintest trace of a senior star beginning to take some responsibility. Now to step on the gas …