Underfire Cook gets unexpected support
Alastair Cook is bound to feel embattled and wounded after England's first home series defeat to Sri Lanka. That such a defeat comes two weeks before England take on India in a five-Test series has left Cook's critics wondering whether MS Dhoni and his men now have an opportunity to hurt England badly by taking advantage of a frail captain in floundering form.
Cook, however, has found strong support in the rival Indian camp with the pair of Duncan Fletcher and Dhoni sympathising with him. Fletcher, who was Cook's first England coach, felt it was pointless to single out Cook for bad form and drew a parallel to former Australian captain Mark Taylor, who had had gone without a fifty for 21 innings in the mid-90s.
"For however long he's (Cook) struggled, give me one player who hasn't been through that period for that length of time," Fletcher said on Wednesday at Grace Road, on the eve of the Indians' first warm-up match, a three-day game against second-division Leicestershire. "I remember Mark Taylor. How long did he not get a run for? Australia kept him on as captain. He went through a big period where he didn't get any - and they kept him. It's as simple as that."
Fletcher even recollected what had convinced him to fly Cook across from the Caribbean to India for his debut Test in 2006 after Marcus Trescothick had decided to return to England. Cook, then 21, was touring in the Caribbean with England A, flew into Nagpur to make a fairytale debut as he finished with a second-innings century.
"There were two things that struck me. Firstly, I thought he was a very intelligent cricketer who understood the game," Fletcher said. "I remember talking in one of the very first team meetings he came to, he'd just been flown across from the West Indies, and for a young player we asked about someone and he quite confidently stood up and said 'this player does this and this player does that'. There are very few players who are prepared to commit to something like that at such an early stage in the England squad."
Fletcher also pointed out that when it came to temperament and mental fortitude, there were not many as strong as Cook. "The next thing was that I think he's a very determined individual. He's very, very determined which I think most opening bats have to be. In fact if you have a look at batters and pick them on their mental aspect one of them would be that they have to be determined and stubborn. And I think Alastair's got that.
"He's proved with the runs that he's got that's he's a very, very good opening batter. I agree with MS that too many people are quite happy to knock you off your pedestal and when you go through those bad times times, keep knocking them. That's when you need their support."
Cook is under pressure after making low scores in the two Tests against Sri Lanka and failing to score a century in 24 Test innings. Fletcher said he was "never that confident" as to when a player could break the drought. "But you've just got to look at other people who have managed to get through those periods. Alastair might do that. It might take him a little bit longer - who knows? But at some stage, you'll get through it - and people will be back praising you again."
Dhoni, who has his own critics to answer as India's hunt for an overseas victory now stretches to three years and 14 Tests, said it was important to back the player while he went through a lean spell. "A bad phase is something that everybody goes through. You just need to back players at the right point," Dhoni said. "When you're getting those big hundreds and double hundreds everybody will be on your side. The real test of character is when your fans or when the media and team-mates are supporting you when you're not doing well."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo