‘The worst day of captaincy I have seen at international level in almost twenty-five years’ was how Australian spin legend Shane Warne described Alastair Cook’s performance on the fourth day of England’s test match against Sri Lanka last week.
The day played host to a monumental English batting collapse, with the first five wickets being lost for just 57 runs with Cook only contributing 16 of them after being bowled by Dhannika Prasad following a horribly misjudged pull shot. It seems fitting that a man experiencing such a torrid time with the bat should be dismissed following the attempt at a shot that had previously been one of his most prolific.
Predictably, when one of the greatest bowlers of all time comes out with a comment such as that, the cricketing world takes note but Warne’s critique should be put in context as both him and Piers Morgan (another one of Cook’s fiercest critics) are both close friends with former England batsman Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen was obviously recently dismissed from England’s plans by the ECB, with Cook thought to have had a decisive influence on the decision and tensions still exist between the former team-mates.
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that a lot of Warne and Morgan’s condemnations are valid with their criticisms centring largely around Cook’s form with the bat. In his last 24 innings, he has managed to secure just 601 runs at an average of 25 which completely contrasts his overall Test average for England of 45.
Cook looks a shadow of the player he used to be with bat in hand and at international standard cricket, a team simply cannot afford to be carrying members of their batting order (particularly towards the top) which is something England have unfortunately been seen doing on too many occasions with their captain. A lot of his dismissals have simply been too cheap for a man of his quality and his inability to push on for scores above 50 have been painfully apparent in recent matches.
It is probably a fair comment to assert that Cook hasn’t the been the same batsman since becoming captain, with only two centuries being secured since the start of 2013, but it is his captaincy itself that has come under most scrutiny from his critics.
During England’s catastrophic tour of Australia last winter, Cook was accused of using defensive fields and seeking to build-up pressure on opposition batsman rather than constantly seek wickets. Certainly his performance as captain was in contrast to his opposite number Michael Clarke who effectively employed the talents of bowlers like Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Lyon to wreak havoc in the English batting order.
I personally have also held serious doubts over the timing of many of Cook’s declarations which have recurrently appeared too conservative, meaning England had posted an unreachable score but without enough time to ensure the opposition’s ten wickets were taken. He was guilty of this again in the second test match with Sri Lanka when he allowed Gary Balance to secure his maiden test century instead of throwing down the gauntlet in the afternoon session and giving England’s bowlers well over four sessions to secure a win going into the final test. A laudable act, but there is little room for niceties in test cricket, as the fact that the final two test matches of the series came to down to the last few overs demonstrates.
As a man, I have no doubt that Cook is the right man for the job however. He is well-spoken, calm and logical whilst also possessing the capability of making hard decisions, as shown by his encouragement of isolating Kevin Pietersen from the international scene. He comes across extremely well in media interviews as well and is arguably very much the quintessential English cricket captain; uncontroversial, respectable and solid.
Yet this solidity is shaking and with his batting form at an all-time low, his position is rightly under question before a crucial home series with India, one of the world’s most dangerous cricket teams.
I do think Cook should be given one final chance however and should seek the refuge of his county Essex in order to try and rectify his batting, work on his technique and clear his head before what is bound to be some of the most crucial few months of his careers.
When Cook is in form, as he was in the Ashes series of 2010-11, he is truly one of the greatest English batsman to have ever graced the field. He possesses a mental strength that allows him to retain enough concentration to accumulate monumental scores such as his 294 against India at Edgbaston in 2011 and it is this quality which he needs to use to address his weaknesses, seek improvement as both captain/batsman and lead his country into a new generation of English cricket.
With individuals such as James Anderson, Ian Bell and Stuart Board; he is a leader of a team that possesses genuine world-class quality and with promising youngsters such as Moeen Ali, Gary Balance and Joe Root all showing promise in the Sri Lanka test series, I am honestly of the belief that we are on the dawn of another exciting epoch of cricket in England.
I am also equally of the opinion that Cook is the right man to oversee it and believe a resurgence of his batting form will help get the critics of his back and signal genuine improvement in his captaincy as well. Cook must however address his conservative nature and become much more willing to employ attackive tactics to ensure England start winning test matches again. There is nothing wrong with being cautious and safe but this should be balanced with the ability to know when risks should be appropriately taken.