Defensive captains' extended test
Roger Waters might well have been thinking of Alastair Cook when he wrote in Time that "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way". Take some license and add MS Dhoni to it, for their stories as captains have a lot in common. Starting July 9, over 42 days packed with 25 possible days of Test cricket in England, the two captains will be under intense scrutiny. Knowing them as captains, they are likely to hang on and on until the desperation is not quiet anymore.
Cook and Dhoni both like order, set-pieces so to speak. The ball is 60 overs old; let's get a spinner and a part-timer on. The opposition is six down; let's attack only the tailender. Let's not change batting orders mid-series. Even in personal lives, the highs and lows of cricket don't seem to be a matter of life and death. Both men are conscious of not expressing too much despair or joy on the field; neither wants attention on himself. At the best of times, they bring this predictability to their operation that calms their teams down. No wild celebrations on winning, no rockets given after losses. When the cricket is over, Cook goes to his farm and tends to sheep; Dhoni opens up bikes and reassembles them, gets acquainted with army weapons and army ways. They won't be able to get away over the next month and a half.
They have had massive highs and lows. Dhoni has won the World Cup, World Twenty20 and Champions Trophy, but he has also gone three years without an overseas Test win, or a defining contribution with the bat over these 13 Tests. Cook has won an Ashes each off his bat and as a captain, has done the unthinkable by leading a series win in India, which are probably two of the most cherished results in England cricket, but he has also overseen the devastating whitewash in Australia, has done the unthinkable by losing a home series to Sri Lanka, and has now gone 25 innings without a century. Over this English summer, they must lay themselves bare on the field. One of them, or both, or even neither, will get the monkey off the back.
You can imagine Dhoni and Cook will like each other over a drink. They might love to discuss how not many in the outside world understand their ways. Surely they believe there is merit to what almost the whole world considers defensive, non-instinctive captaincy? "A hundred and eighty-seven Tests between us, and people are still questioning us." "A hundred and eighty-seven Tests between them, and they are still letting Tests drift on the field." They might even enjoy a game of poker, sitting expression-less, keeping their cards close to their chest, not letting anyone know what they are thinking. Except there won't be a lot of raising done. They could spend hours talking about Duncan Fletcher, who holds both of them dear. They might discuss how one of them was saved by his board president, and how the other's boss considers him and his family "the sort of people we need".
Cook and Dhoni. Dhoni and Cook. Possible mates. Possible nemeses. For Cook has given Dhoni as much grief as anyone else in international cricket. Piling on those runs in the home series, leading a side that consigned India to their most rueful Test defeat in recent memory, winning after conceding 325 on the Bombay Bunsen. Dhoni had his own back when he pulled out an Ishant Sharma-sized rabbit out of his hat in the Champions Trophy last year, cruelly ending England's quest for their first big title in 50-over cricket.
Even when Shane Warne says that the fourth day against Sri Lanka at Headingley was the worst bit of captaincy he has ever seen in Test cricket, Dhoni can pull out a few examples of his own to steal that thunder from Cook. Wonder if Dhoni found that fourth day all too familiar. Then again, Cook can claim Dhoni doesn't have such days at home. It takes a really awful day of cricket to be able to manage this in home conditions.
Consequently Cook will be under more pressure than Dhoni, who still has the limited-overs success to fall back on. After all he did survive the two whitewashes and the home series loss to England. Cook's selectors and public are not likely to be that forgiving. Cook need not look past Dhoni if this feels like pressure. It matters nought to Dhoni what the public or the pundits think. It doesn't affect his game, it doesn't affect his team's game. They won the Champions Trophy weeks after the biggest scandal in Indian cricket in this century, and it had involved Dhoni's IPL team and his biggest supporter in India, N Srinivasan.
Srinivasan does his bit by protecting the team, by making sure nobody who will criticise them - like Shane Warne or anyone at Sky might England - will be employed by the host broadcaster. It is still unlikely Warne will be able to send Dhoni into a public meltdown. You need a thick skin to be India captain for this long.
It's not all doom and gloom for the series, though. It won't all start at 11am in Nottingham with third man, deep point, deep cover and deep midwicket as the brave new version of three slips and a gully. These two are exceptional international cricketers, and you don't achieve what they have achieved in their careers without mental strength. When Cook hammered India in 2011, it was part of a resurgence after almost a summer where he couldn't buy a run. Dhoni began India's turnaround at home with a series-turning double-century against Australia.
Michael Clarke and Mark Taylor might not approve of this, but with both the captains evenly matched as tacticians, preferring attrition to assault, this has the makings of a tight series. The duration of it will allow the leaders to reassess the strategies, or provide enough time to get thoroughly exposed. The stakes - surely higher for Cook than Dhoni, but he has the better bowlers - could even make the captains come out of their shells. Just as long as a proper batsman is not batting with a tailender.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo