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Some may say that the England captain's dismissal was unlucky, but it was the latest example of the demons he is battling as the form slump grows longer
George Dobell at Trent Bridge
July 10, 2014
Chappell: In trying to cover one weakness, Cook has created others
It was days like this that persuaded Edvard Munch to paint The Scream, Thomas Hardy to write Jude The Obscure and Leonard Cohen to pick up a guitar. And it has been days like this that have persuaded many captains that the time has come to step down.
This was a day during which the pressure upon Alastair Cook mounted. It mounted when Matt Prior put down a chance to dismiss MS Dhoni before he had added to his overnight total. It mounted when Moeen Ali was unable to fill the role of controlling spinner. And it mounted when he saw his champion fast bowler, James Anderson, thrashed for six back over his head by a tailender who started the match with a Test average of 3.33 amid an agonising tenth-wicket partnership that left England exhausted, embarrassed and exposed.
But it culminated in Cook's own dismissal. Finally given the opportunity to make use of a pitch holding few alarms, Cook not just failed to take advantage, not just failed to mount the defence his side required, but betrayed the extent to which his own personal game has sunk.
On a wicket on which India's tenth-wicket pair had prospered simply by playing forward and straight, Cook paid the penalty for playing back and across. Instead of playing a straight ball back towards the bowler, he attempted to nudge it into the leg side and, lacking balance and a sense of where his stumps were, was bowled round his legs after the delivery brushed his thigh pad.
The generous spirited might suggest it was an unfortunate dismissal. But, if you try to play straight balls through square leg, if your balance is so poor that your head falls over to the off side leaving you unaware of the position of your stumps, such things will happen.
Previous dismissals surely played a part. Cook has been struggling outside off stump in recent months and here appeared to over-compensate by ensuring he would not be reaching at one. Such a solution simply created another problem, though.
Nor is this failure an aberration. Since the start of 2014, Cook is averaging just 13.85 in Test cricket with a top score of 28. He has not made a half-century in seven innings and not made a century in 25. If England hide behind poor fortune for Cook's decline, they are in denial.
Weariness - mental and physical weariness - might have played a part. After enjoying a spell in early afternoon where his side claimed four wickets for two runs in 21 deliveries, Cook must have hoped that India could be dismissed for a total of around 350; probably under par on such a benign surface.
Instead, for the third time in as many years, England conceded a century stand for the tenth-wicket. Yet again, Cook was obliged to force Anderson and Stuart Broad into new spells. England saw a game slip away from them and the lack of potency in their attack exposed.
Cook was left to reflect on a situation in which the English system - a system that leaves counties requiring five days of ticket receipts to afford the cost of hosting Test cricket - works against the national side rather than playing to its strengths. For make no mistake, in years to come, this rotten pitch, a slice of Nagpur in Nottingham, may be remembered as a contributory factor in Cook's demise.
There is little so dispiriting for a fielding side than a lengthy tenth-wicket stand. Not only do such partnerships frustrate and embarrass bowlers, but they dispirit and tire entire teams. Bowlers who think their work is done are forced into new spells; plans that appeared to have been working are undermined and minds that were beginning to turn to batting are forced to wrestle with an irritation that had not been anticipated.
The fact that Mohammed Shami drove Anderson for six has a significance beyond the symbolic. Not only did it underline the lack of potency in England's main weapon on his favourite surface, but it suggested a worrying tiredness at this stage of the series. With five Tests to be played in 42 days, the last thing Cook wanted was to force his strike bowler into 38 overs in the first innings of the series. Demanding such spells of such a bowler is like using a sports car to transport scaffolding.
Equally, the workload required of the seamers underlined the lack of effectiveness of Moeen. While he did not, with one full toss and one long-hop excepted, bowl poorly, he was simply unable to contain skilful batsmen in such conditions. He conceded more than five an over and, at one stage, was hit for two sixes in three balls.
Moeen may develop into a fine Test bowler but, for now, England's lack of a world-class spinner is making Cook's job, and the job of his seamers, far more demanding. It might well be relevant that Simon Kerrigan, the left-arm spinner who endured such a tough debut at The Oval last year, has acted as 12th man for England in this Test.
There were, perhaps, other signs that the pressure was beginning to distort Cook's thinking; other signs that all the criticism, all the abuse, was beginning to convince him to stray from the methods that come naturally and persuade him to experiment.
For when Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar came together, Cook experimented with a field that included, for a while, three short midwickets and no slips. And, for a while, he experimented with only one fielder on the leg side.
Whether such tactics were admirably inventive or the symptom of a man trying too hard to appease his critics probably depends on your viewpoint before this match began.
The truth is, Cook did not have a bad day in the field and England did not bowl badly. Quite the opposite, really. In difficult conditions Broad, in particular, displayed fine heart and skill and it is hard to think what Cook could have done differently. Until Shami and Kumar's intervention, it might even have been considered an excellent day.
But Cook's primary role remains that of an opening batsmen. And whether as a result of the burden of captaincy, whether it is media pressure or whether fate has simply mixed a perfect storm of problems, his run of grim form is turning into something of a marathon. And if he cannot make runs on these pitches… well, it will not grow any easier.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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