England v India, 2nd Investec Test, Lord's, 2nd day July 18, 2014

Cook's descent into private hell

Eventually, with the batting failures accumulating and his captaincy not compensating, the reasons for persisting with Alastair Cook are wearing out

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Chappell: England in dire straits but for Ballance

Had an undertaker taken measurements of Alastair Cook as he made his way back to the pavilion, the signs could hardly have been more obvious: after another poor display in the field on the opening day and another poor display with the bat on the second, time is running out for England's captain.

Cook's failure at Lord's was familiar in every sense. Not just because it extended his run of low scores to the stage where they can no longer be ignored by an England management desperate for him to succeed, but for the manner of his dismissal. Cook, as so often, was caught behind after poking at one just outside off stump without moving his feet. He has now gone 26 innings without a century and averages 13.37 this calendar year. Those are figures that can no longer be ignored or excused.

The groan that rose from Lord's upon Cook's dismissal spoke volumes. It spoke of a crowd desperately willing Cook to succeed; it spoke of a crowd that understood how hard he is working, how much he is struggling and of their empathy for a decent man descending into his own private hell.

He had looked in better touch. He left the ball well. His defensive strokes all hit the middle of the bat and, in general, went straight back to the bowler. There was a sense that this might be his day.

And it is true that he has enjoyed little luck. While Gary Ballance benefited from a reprieve in the slips early in his century, Cook had no such fortune. And while the ball that struck his thigh pad at Trent Bridge might usually have glanced away for leg byes, it instead cannoned onto his leg stump.

But only fools and losers continually blame luck for their failings. Eventually you have to accept that if a result recurs often, there is an underlying reason.

It has not been unreasonable to keep faith with Cook until now. His long-term record remains good - though his average has dropped to a fraction over 45 - and he is, at 29, young enough to come again. But eventually, with the run of low scores growing longer, it appears ever more as if the England management are desperate for him to succeed as much so save their own face as anything else.

They staked everything on Cook. They sacked Kevin Pietersen and decided to rebuild upon the rock of Cook's run scoring. But perhaps due to the pressure that decision added, he has been unable to sustain the form required for a Test opening batsman. The management's faith and continuity is starting to look desperate rather than loyal and sensible. Just as it is becoming impossible to deny the deterioration in Matt Prior's keeping, so Cook's problems have become impossible to ignore.

While Cook is batting ever more like Mike Brearley - who, speaking on Test Match Special, questioned whether Cook would survive his current malaise - he is no nearer to captaining like him.

After an improved performance at Trent Bridge, he chased the game in the field on Thursday and suggested that all the criticism he has attracted had started to distort his thinking. Just when England needed to patiently persist on an old-fashioned line and length attack, they experimented with three men out on the hook and a round the wicket bouncer barrage. It was, by any standards, poor captaincy.

And eventually, with the batting failures accumulating and his captaincy not compensating, the reasons for persisting with Cook are wearing out. If England lose this match, a match in which they won a crucial toss, Cook's future will be hanging by a thread. We may well be in the end days now.

If and when the end comes for Cook, he might well reflect on the lack of support he has gained from his senior players. For various reasons - fitness mainly - Prior has been unable to provide the support he might have done in previous years, while James Anderson and Stuart Broad let him down with their bowling both at Headingley and in the first innings here. Ian Bell's lack of runs is bringing no respite, either.

Cook is now clinging to his position by the flimsiest of reasons: the lack of alternatives. Neither the candidates for replacement opening batsman or the opening position spring out. If they did, Cook would surely have gone by now.

The most obvious alternative as captain is Bell. He has captained, albeit on a part-time basis, with some success for Warwickshire. He showed himself to be an imaginative leader whose own game seemed to improve with the responsibility.

But not only is his own form a nagging worry - nobody doubts Bell's class but it is now 18 innings since he registered a Test century and, since the start of the Ashes series in Australia, he is averaging 27.53 - but there is some doubt as to whether he can replicate those leadership characteristics at this level.

While at county level Bell is something of a giant, respected by his peers and confident in the environment, most insiders talk of him in very different terms in the England set-up. He is seen more as a follower than a leader and there are doubts whether he could control other senior players as required.

Captaincy might well prove the making of him, but it would constitute a risk.

Joe Root also has his supporters. But just as his premature elevation to the opening spot threatened to derail his progress, so the burden of captaincy might prove unhelpful for a 23-year-old whose game is still in its development phase. He has little experience in the role - his one game as captain of Yorkshire earlier this season ended in Middlesex chasing 472 to win in the fourth innings for the loss of only three wickets - and to promote him now might risk spoiling one of the more exciting prospects in the English game.

Cook has one more chance in the second innings. But if he fails again and England lose the game, his days may be numbered. He will be batting for his future in the fourth innings at Lord's.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2014, 1:40 GMT

    Pigs will probably fly first, but if as they should the English drop Cook as captain, they should go the whole hog, swallow their pride, and recall Pietersen, As they likely won't, India should be celebrating at the end of the series.

  • ESPN on July 19, 2014, 15:17 GMT

    Let cook bat down the order for a match or two. Swap his position with Prior or Moeen. England team needs to be imaginative :3

  • Prem on July 19, 2014, 14:34 GMT

    Give Cook a rest and bring back Peitersen as captain.

  • David on July 19, 2014, 14:18 GMT

    All of this was crystal clear at the end of the Australia tour. Cook managed to divert attention away from his own issues as a captain and leader by saying that it was all KPs fault. Essentially, England have lost two batsmen as a consequence; 4 if Bell and Prior are included. His lack of leadership is proving to be more damaging than anything KP ever did.

  • Jason on July 19, 2014, 13:47 GMT

    Its a difficult one in regards to a replacement captain, the question is does anyone want the posion chalice based on how the media has gone after cook for the last 18 months, even when he was winning games in last years ashes. I see the Essex boys pushing Foster whos 36 so has only 1-2 years left, the notts boys pushing Read whos the same age.

    What they forget is that both these players were tried and they FAILED in front and behind the stumps.

    For gods sake dont give it Root hes no where near qualified and im a yorkshire supporter.

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2014, 13:24 GMT

    Cook it is time to go , go before they asked you to go

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2014, 13:05 GMT

    Hi to say least England team is in shambles and captain not leading by example. they are not the swame team anymore who bet everybody including au7ssies few years back. Have they any chance agaiinst revamped aussies next time. Look Amla looks atleast started as a positive captain by declaring against Srilanka venkat

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2014, 13:00 GMT

    Surely the coaching staff should see what is going wrong in the field and shout instructions to the players to try to rectify wayward bowling and errant field placings. Or am I confusing this with other sports?

  • Bob on July 19, 2014, 12:53 GMT

    Let's look at this logically.. Cook really doesn't have anything going for him does he ? ... He's not scoring runs... he's not an innovative nor an inventive captain.. and his side is under-performing... If he was in business.. the company would be on the verge of bankruptcy and his head would be on the block. So how come he's still in post ? Is this not a case of the ECB enduring what's happening to avoid losing face given the faith they've shown in Cook thus far ? That might well be the case, but by now they are losing the confidence of the paying public and the media... So how much longer will they let this continue ?... How much further down the rankings will they let England slide until they take the bull by the horns ? .. The Aussies must the licking their lips...

  • Roderick on July 19, 2014, 11:54 GMT

    @Cubby Kelaart: last time I checked, Petersen was still only qualified to play for South Africa,